The once-mighty U.S. Merchant Marine fleet has nearly collapsed under the weight of high labor costs, zigzagging federal policies and intense competition from abroad, damaging America’s position as the only country in the world able to supply and sustain a long-distance war.
The U.S. Merchant Marine has declined from 1,288 international trading vessels in 1951 to 81 today.
“It’s a matter of national security,” said Maritime Administration chief Mark H. Buzby, a retired Navy rear admiral.
The Merchant Marine is a fleet of U.S. ships that carries cargo during peacetime and becomes an auxiliary of the Defense Department during wartime to deliver troops and supplies to conflict zones. The Navy itself does not have enough ships to handle a large-scale supply mission on its own and has relied in almost every conflict on the Merchant Marine.
“I tell people we’re kind of on the ragged edge here of our ability to conduct a large-scale sea-lift operation to move our combat forces overseas. Even in an uncontested environment, we would be challenged,” Buzby said.
An Air Force general warned Congress last month that the Pentagon might have to turn to foreign vessels to mobilize equipment, just as it did in the 1991 Gulf War mobilization. But in that war, the crews of 13 of the 192 foreign-flagged vessels carrying cargo rebelled and forced their ships away from the war zone.