“The United States is a maritime nation. There is no way we can abrogate this fact.”
– Anthony Foxx, former Secretary of Transportation.
Our coastlines are too vast and our seaports are too critical to our economic survival. Just about everything we produce in large quantities finds its way to a sea port. Likewise, the rest of the world sends the vast majority of its products to us through these same ports. And the only way this happens is through a massive maritime synergy comprised of merchant ships freely navigating the global maritime environment and a ready, capable national maritime defense force that is charged with protecting these vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) throughout the maritime commons.
Our military capability depends on our free and unfettered access to our trading partners via the greatest of all commons—the sea. Without a strong merchant fleet, manned by a skilled workforce of seafaring men and women, the security of our vital national interests (and those of our allies, partners, and friends) is in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, this is exactly where we are today. Over the last 50 years, the United States has lost its place as a leader in this vital industry. Others have written extensively on the reduction in numbers of ships and mariners, so I will not belabor that point. What I would pose in this blog are a few thoughts on the impact in terms of the elements of national power—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME).
Influencing the World through the DIME Paradigm
Diplomatic: The U.S.-flagged merchant is increasingly becoming a rarer sight on the ocean than it used to be. And, it will most likely not regain its power in our lifetime. As a country, we must understand the implications of seeing it go away or being greatly overcome by others who don’t have the best interest of the United States, our allies, and any who understand the importance of freedom of the seas. American merchant mariners represent our country in many parts of the world where the Navy doesn’t regularly travel. The fleet symbolizes American values and engagement around the globe. And, it provides reassurance to our partners that the United States has not given up its position as a leader in the world. Ask anyone who has boarded a U.S.-flagged merchant and you likely hear of the respect and admiration they have for American values and leadership. In a world filled with uncertainty, the American merchant fleet provides a constant source of strength to our engagements.
Informational: As the fleet sails to distant ports, it acts as a means of spreading America’s message and listening to others. For example, when our merchant fleet sailed into the pirate infested regions of the world, it demonstrated America’s commitment to freedom of the seas. The movie Captain Phillips was a good depiction of what happens when American trade is threatened…we keep going. And, we don’t allow our trade to stop.
Military: The United States military’s most prominent asymmetric advantage is our ability to be anywhere, project power, and sustain it. From WWII to today, the majority of this is done at sea with our merchant fleet. Greater use of the merchant fleet in operations other than war or irregular warfare has begun to grow over the past decade. Afloat forward staging bases (AFSBs) are in high demand by our special forces and marines in supporting operations on the lower end of the war fighting spectrum (e.g., humanitarian operations, countering violent terrorists). It’s well known that the merchant fleet is far less expensive to maintain and operate. This allows our battle fleet (aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious warships, etc.) to concentrate its work in areas of greater risk to the force.
Economic: Real power is based on economics, period. Military power derives from that economic power because that is what enables a nation to build and sustain military forces. The ledger would indicate that American business would always go with non-U.S.-flagged ships to save money, but it is not that simple. Imagine if another nation decided it wanted to hold America hostage by restricting the use of the sea lanes of communication. This is the problem today in the South China Sea and others dense waterways. Some nations don’t concern themselves with free enterprise and directly control how their merchant fleet operates. Our current trajectory as a nation puts our economy and that of the world at incredible risk. And since maritime economics require a healthy and active merchant fleet manned by well-trained crews freely trading with our partners all over the globe, our Navy must be of a requisite size and capability to ensure our maritime economic interests are never in jeopardy. It is a symbiotic relationship as I see it—if you want to be a major economic power, you need a large and viable merchant fleet, which requires a large and capable maritime defense force.
Forging a Brighter Future, Regaining Our Maritime Power
They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step—this is the strategy we must embrace going forward if we hope to turn around the current state of our maritime merchant force. Time is the critical factor here—you have to start somewhere. Measured and committed investment over time, with commercial collaboration is the key. We must keep our shipbuilding infrastructure viable and “level-loaded” to capacity—that means building more ships, specifically merchant ships of high quality. Reinvigorating our merchant shipbuilding and mariner programs will send a clear signal to the rest of the world that everyone will understand far more than building another nuclear aircraft carrier because, once our American industries are focused and online, we can overwhelm any region of the world with our economic power—and everyone knows it. What’s even better is that we never have to fire a single shot in aggression at anyone.
Yes, this will cost money, but I think in this instance the money issue is sort of a red herring that is thrown out by short-sighted people who really don’t understand the true underpinnings of the DIME construct. A national, robust merchant shipbuilding program feeds every part of our society, which in turn creates more opportunities and more economic freedom for our nation. Ultimately, it enables our national security goals around the globe by tamping down the inevitable regional frictions of cultures and societies. The return on such investments is huge and requires only the vision and leadership to see past the next election to understand how powerful this strategy really is. In fact, it is the perfect maritime strategy for a world that is more interconnected and globalized than at any other time in history. If you build it, they will come.
It is the epitome of Sun Tzu’s doctrine that says the greatest accomplishment of a leader/nation is to meet its goals without ever having to resort to armed conflict.
It is time again for America to realize her full potential as a maritime nation and reinvigorate the merchant marine industry.
Sinc Harris is LMI’s client relations executive for the defense sector. He retired as a rear admiral after a 34-year career in the U.S. Navy. His service culminated as the vice director for operations to chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his distinguished career, he led joint, combined, multinational, and interagency organizations both at sea and ashore across all aspects of defense, including full-spectrum operations, program management, strategic planning, and execution. He also commanded the U.S. Fourth Fleet, leading U.S. naval forces assigned to the U.S. Southern Command.