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America Needs a National Maritime Strategy

September 27, 2023

America doesn't have enough ships and building more takes far too long.

A war with any level of attrition in the Pacific could quickly turn catastrophic without sufficient warships, combat logistics vessels, and merchant ships. Outnumbered and without the capacity to replace, refuel, and provision our troops, we would struggle to deliver victory.

This precarious situation carries significant implications for our economy, national security, and international standing. Consequently, America must act now, before it is too late, to set a new maritime trajectory by building a coherent national maritime strategy.

Chinese Communist Party leaders are students of history, and they recognize America’s arsenal of democracy all but ensured America's triumph in the Pacific in World War II. Overwhelming numerical force, new ships, and maritime shipping secured our victory.

Now, the Pentagon considers China the world's top shipbuilder, not America. China controls the world's 4th largest shipping company, and its Navy is the world's largest.

Meanwhile, America's maritime enterprise reflects years of neglect and decline, despite being the world's largest economy, and relying heavily on global maritime trade.

Following World War II, American commercial shipbuilding led the world in output and tonnage. Today, the United States ranks just 19th in shipbuilding and produces less than ½ a percent of the world's commercial ships.

The fate of our shipping heritage is no different. In 1947, the United States fleet of over 5,000 vessels represented 40% of the world's shipping capacity. By the 1960's, however, America's nearly 3,000 ships only carried 16% of the world's cargo. Most recently, our nation's international trading fleet consisted of merely 80 ships, accounting for less than 1.5% of global trade.

What about the United States Navy? During the late 1980s, the fleet size was nearly 590 ships, but it has dwindled to about 290 ships today. Meanwhile, China's naval forces have soared to 340 warships, with hundreds more guided missile patrol boats and armed maritime militia vessels.

These trends directly translated into a decline of our nation’s power and influence.

Rebuilding that power through maritime strength requires a holistic approach, considering the readiness of our entire maritime machinery – infrastructure, workforce, technology, policies, industry, shipping fleets, and sea services. We need our own National Maritime Strategy to pull all these elements together and provide a true strategy for competing with China on the high seas, growing our maritime economy, protecting the freedom of the seas, and sustaining our oceanic resources.

Such a strategic design starts with recognizing our nation needs American-built and crewed ships, but we also need help changing our nation’s maritime trajectory.

We are in a race against time since China now has more than 200 times the shipbuilding capacity of the United States. Of course, we prefer all our ships be American built. But, in the race with our greatest adversary, we need a mix of US, Japanese, South Korean, and European-built ships in a Reagan-style build-up. I applaud efforts like our Navy’s Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, but that program is spread over 20 years and is focused solely on public shipyards. That’s too little too late.

We must complement efforts to improve shipbuilding capacity by using drones. Smaller, cheaper platforms are easier to build and provide an affordable path for quickly ramping up the size and reach of our nation's fleets. Let's not reinvent the wheel but instead tap into the wealth of existing technology and operations to scale our military, civil, and commercial fleets.

Finally, Congress should cultivate a finance and regulatory environment to make civil and commercial shipbuilding and shipping industries more competitive globally. Close loopholes that permit private equity funds to flood Chinese shipyards and harness those resources for domestic projects.

This means writing new laws that encourage and protect private investment in shipbuilding, shipping, and projects of national interest. Make it easier, safer, and more profitable for Wall Street firms, private equity, and the American public to invest in our nation’s naval activities.  

Only Congress can provide the funding, prioritization, and accountability necessary to revitalize and sustain our maritime enterprise and position America for success on the seas. The strategic maritime environment demands urgent action to develop a national maritime strategy that synchronizes stakeholders, resources, and policy, leading to unity of maritime effort.

As a direct response to this vital need, I sponsored legislation in this year's NDAA to hold the administration accountable for producing such a design. I will continue working with my colleagues Roger Wicker, Trent Kelly, and Rob Wittman on this national security crisis. Working hand in hand with the people of this great nation, we will ensure America’s place as a global leader on the seas.

Mike Waltz represents Florida’s 6th Congressional District and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee, and Select Committee on Intelligence. He is a Green Beret veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a former White House counterterrorism policy adviser, and a defense policy director for secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
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