In a bittersweet irony for the American merchant marine, stocks of foreign-flag cruise vessels shot up yesterday in anticipation of a major US taxpayer bailout while the state of the American merchant marine and the sealift fleet continued to sink to a point where Pentagon planners believe they could not support a major two-front war.
The decline of the American fleet was underlined dramatically this week when it became questionable whether an American-flagged hospital ship could answer the call to sail to New York City as planned to fight the Covid 19 virus.
She was deployed after hurried repairs but illustrates the plight of American flagged vessels in the merchant marine and sealift fleet where operating and building subsidies have been slashed over the decades.
Many are twice the age at which most ships are scrapped, with several facing a long list of needed repairs. The combined merchant and sealift fleet is so old rusty and unsafe that Pentagon planners have acknowledged the nation could not logistically supply troops in a two-front war of “peer nations.”
Building and operating subsidies for the American Merchant marine have been slashed over the years. Said an analyst in Forbes Magazine of the merchant marine:
“A once-vast fleet of U.S.-flagged commercial ships has declined precipitously since the Reagan Administration eliminated construction subsidies three decades ago, and meanwhile the sealift vessels owned by the government have aged to a point where their availability in a crisis cannot be assured.
“To make matters worse, the availability of foreign shipping in an emergency is increasingly doubtful, in part because of China’s growing dominance of trade routes and key ports. Owners of foreign vessels are reluctant to carry military cargoes that might be used in countering Beijing’s geopolitical strategy, particularly at a time when the security of sea lanes is becoming less certain.”
The possibility of supporting foreign-flag cruise vessels may be necessary, President Trump has said, because they generate jobs for Americans in such cities as Miami and Seattle. Most of the cruise lines, however, are “flag of convenience” registered ships with such countries as Panama and Liberia, where tax and safety regulations are lax.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that drastic action is needed to renew the American flag sealift fleet. The current funds for new ships is being consumed by repairs.