Down to the Sea in Ships (Again)

September 4, 2020 Updated: September 8, 2020

Commentary

An important aspect of the reset of the world economy and the decoupling of the United States and China is the business of world shipping and shipbuilding (the maritime domain) and the military situation (the naval domain).

The maritime and naval domains are key pillars of success in our struggle with the Chinese Communist Party. We have a powerful Navy and need an even more powerful Navy. Meanwhile, the maritime domain, an environment the United States once dominated, has become comatose at best.

Our nation needs to once again establish a dominant maritime domain (merchant shipping and merchant shipbuilding). We are in a strategic window where we can reestablish unequivocal dominance in both. Although often blurred together, the maritime and naval domains are related, but very different, domains and should be treated differently to make sense out of the discussion, analysis, and hopefully, action.

A New Jones Act Needed

The era of great power competition between the United States and China provides a backdrop, framework, and imperative for a radical win-win evolution of the 1920 Jones Act. The cyberattack on Maersk Lines in 2017 gave COSCO (the lead Chinese merchant line) a significant gain in market share.

Although started with the best of intentions, the Jones Act has become a symbol of legislation that has produced the opposite effect over time. The Jones Act essentially limits trade between U.S. ports to U.S.-built vessels (the delightful policy wonk term of “cabotage”). Due to the inflexibility of Jones Act advocates in evolving the act, the result has been clear—an evaporation of the American merchant vessel industry.

The Jones Act has aroused strong feelings on one side or another for a long time, but now, in 2020, its effect is clear. From the April 2019 Maritime Administration report, the total U.S. Merchant Fleet has shrunk to 182 ships from 578 in 1980. During this same period, the world’s merchant fleet has tripled in size.

There’s a compelling need to transform one of the most important, yet obscure, pieces of American legislation in an atmosphere of cooperation with the vested interests behind it to create a renaissance in U.S. shipbuilding and merchant marine operations.

The late Sen. John McCain once said this about the Jones Act, its proponents, and his desire to transform it:

“But I have to tell you … the power of this maritime lobby is as powerful as anybody or any organization I have run up against in my political career.

“All I can do is appeal to the patron saint of lost causes and keep pressing and pressing, and sooner or later you have to succeed.”

A Jones Act 2.0

The objective of this strategic evolution to a Jones Act 2.0 is to build the U.S. flag merchant fleet and U.S. shipyards, and get out of the trend line and mindset of managing their decline.

The Jones Act 2.0 will grow U.S. shipyard competitiveness, expand the U.S. flag fleet, and drive down the cost of transport to Alaska, Hawaii, and U.S. territories. There are seven key elements of Jones Act 2.0 legislation that would be a win-win for all parties involved. They include:

  1. Institute a strategic transition period enabled by a downward cap gains valley and holiday over a 35-year period to allow for a strategic reset. Flow of capital is key to building the golden age of maritime affairs.
  2. Codify in clear, but reasonably enduring terms, the definitions of maritime activities such as container traffic, heavy lift, float-on/float-off, and enablers such as cyber, cybersecurity, information technologies, autonomy, and artificial intelligence.
  3. Codify the meaning of effectively U.S.-controlled (EUSC) fleets and merchant vessels and include them in the Jones 2.0.
  4. Facilitate a vertical integration of American shipyards and large maritime and infrastructure activities with key strategic partners. Have the transformed U.S. shipyards act like Boeing and be the integrators and assemblers of a worldwide integrated supply chain.
  5. Allow direct vessel and cargo/passenger transport activities between the United States and U.S. territories by foreign flag vessels that are EUSC.
  6. Incentivize maximum automation and autonomy for all maritime transport operations, all maritime/infrastructure planning, fabrication, and assembly. The key to the future of maritime is autonomy and artificial intelligence in all aspects of operations, planning, and implementation.
  7. Within Jones 2.0, implement a strategic recapitalization of the 300-plus Military Sealift Command/National Defense Reserve Fleet (MSC/NDRF) ship force structure.

Reestablishing Dominance in Naval Domain

Since World War II, the U.S. Navy has dominated the world’s oceans. At the peak of the Cold War, the Russian navy attempted to challenge the U.S. Navy by introducing large battlecruisers, massive submarine numbers, and light aircraft carrier-type warships.

But they could never quite master the strategic art of generating, projecting, maintaining, and logistically supporting far-flung naval operations. In many ways, they were a “port” navy, sitting pierside for show and propaganda purposes.

However, the grand 600-ship U.S. Navy of the Reagan days has shrunk to under 300 ships, and now, the U.S. Navy is struggling to generate and project naval presence at will. At one time, U.S. Navy carrier task forces were simultaneously forward in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the western Pacific without breaking a sweat. Those days are a wonderful memory now.

A baffling turn of events.

So what are the issues and solutions to return the U.S. Navy to greatness? China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is developing naval projection capabilities on a large scale—they are no longer a “port” navy.

Having served on the defense secretary’s staff and the joint chiefs chairman’s staff at the Pentagon and seeing the big picture, I would say in many ways, it’s a loss of the bravado and “can do” spirit that once instilled confidence in the leadership and planning staffs.

I have absolute confidence in the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael M. Gilday. He’s the right leader, at the right place, at the right time. Brought to the lead in interesting turns of events, he is the one to return the U.S. Navy to the John Paul Jones ethos, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

Next, a three-year sprint should be established to drive the U.S. Navy as far as possible toward a 400-ship Navy, with radically new capabilities with large swarms of autonomous air, surface, and sub-surface drones. Part of this sprint is expanding the industrial base so there are more shipyards in the United States and forward to build, maintain, and repair the fleet.

These shipyards are different than the shipyards needed for vessels of commerce—naval and maritime vessels are built to totally different design standards. The U.S. Navy needs to significantly increase the numbers of long-range missiles and air defense missiles—you can never have enough ammunition in a gunfight. Our forward facilities need to be expanded in numbers and readiness. All of these initiatives will help bring this three-year sprint to a successful objective of deterring the CCP from any form of action, anywhere in the world.

This proposal will, of course, initiate lively debate and discussion. The intent is to create a golden age and renaissance of American naval and maritime activities and incentivize significant growth and opportunities for the U.S. economy and national security interests.

The era of great power competition is upon us and the need for dominance and self-sufficiency of the maritime and naval domains are the missing pieces for U.S. economic growth and security.

Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now—Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. @ColonelRETJOHN

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.