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U.S. Shipbuilding Is At Its Lowest Ebb Ever. How Did America Fall So Far?

In 1919, Ralph D. Paine began a brief history of the old U.S. merchant marine with these words:

“The story of American ships and sailors is an epic of blue water which seems singularly remote, almost unreal, to the later generations. A people with a native genius for seafaring won and held a brilliant supremacy through two centuries and then forsook this heritage of theirs. The period of achievement was no more extraordinary than was its swift declension.”

Paine was talking mainly about the era of sailing ships, when U.S. whalers and traders often ventured to the opposite side of the world in pursuit of prizes.

But he might just as well have been talking about the state of U.S. shipbuilding and maritime trades today, which have virtually collapsed over the last generation.

A nation that led the world in commercial shipbuilding as recently as America’s bicentennial year today builds less than 10 vessels for oceangoing commerce in a typical year.

China builds over a thousand such ships each year.

The entire U.S.-registered fleet of oceangoing commercial ships numbers fewer than 200 vessels, out of a global total of 44,000.

And despite trade flows to and from America exceeding a trillion dollars annually—the vast preponderance of which travel by sea—U.S.-registered ships carry barely 1% of that traffic.

That is quite a decline from the year I was born, 1951, when the U.S. merchant marine transported a third of all global trade.

To make matters worse, the U.S. Navy has apparently lost its capacity to keep up with China in military shipbuilding.

China now has the largest fleet of warships in the world, about 350, while America’s Navy is struggling to get above 300.

The Navy’s request for ship construction funds next year envisions building only four combat vessels (out of eight total), a level of effort that if sustained would guarantee Chinese maritime dominance by 2030.

U.S. sailors are still better trained and better equipped than their Chinese counterparts, but all the trends are in the wrong direction.

It tells you a lot about the state of America’s maritime sector that the largest exporter of containerized cargo to the U.S. is a shipping company owned outright by the Chinese government.

The U.S. merchant marine today is so small that analysts question its ability to support military sealift requirements in a war.

With only 180 or so oceangoing vessels in the U.S.-registered commercial fleet and less than 12,000 professional mariners—most whom would be tied up serving domestic routes at the onset of a war—the capacity of the private sector to supplement the government’s aged collection of sealift vessels in an emergency is problematic at best.

It is easy to find excuses for why Washington has allowed the U.S. maritime presence to waste away.

After all, how likely is a protracted war with China, requiring months or years of sealift activity to sustain forward-deployed forces?

However, that hardly disposes of all the national security concerns surrounding America’s gradual disappearance from the world’s oceans.

We know that Beijing’s long-term goal is to dominate global supply chains for vital industrial goods, so the fact China is outproducing America in large commercial vessels 100-to-1, that it increasingly dominates traffic, and that it is securing control of ports along key trade routes, should have elicited a policy response from Washington.

So far, it has not.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s ability to dominate the future naval balance in its own region—the industrial heartland of the new global economy—is increasingly evident.

China already possesses geographical and economic advantages in that pursuit, so its ability to outproduce the U.S. in warships each year should be viewed with alarm.

China’s most immediate naval goal is to secure control of nearby seas; the smaller U.S. Navy needs to maintain a presence everywhere, from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf to the Western Pacific.

It seems the trade patterns and the naval patterns are mutually reinforcing, pointing to an historic loss of U.S. maritime influence in the near future.

This problem is fixable, but it may require a different kind of political culture than America currently possesses.

The decline of U.S. shipbuilding is just one facet of America’s broader deindustrialization, a process that has seen the land of Edison and Westinghouse gradually abandon the production of every industrial product from smartphones to aluminum since the Cold War ended.

It was not so long ago that the U.S. hosted a dozen builders of aircraft; today it has exactly one manufacturer of large aircraft left, and that company has been faltering of late.

America’s insular and polarized political system seems incapable of even noticing such problems, much less ameliorating them.

For instance, the domestic shipbuilding industry went from being the biggest producer of commercial oceangoing vessels to building barely any at all in a mere 10 years, thanks to a foolish move by the Reagan administration to wipe out construction subsidies without seeking reciprocal action from other nations.

That move was never revisited, even though the shipbuilding industry lost 40,000 workers during the Reagan years.

Time will tell whether the Biden administration has the sense to revise naval shipbuilding plans, which at the moment could spell doom for some of the surviving U.S. shipyards.

Optimism is not warranted, given that the U.S. has lost 14 new-construction shipyards since 1970, with barely a peep from Washington.

Today there is only one full-service shipyard left on the entire West Coast, and outside of submarines every segment of the domestic shipbuilding industry, both military and commercial, is facing major uncertainties in the years ahead.

The Trump administration’s last industrial-base report to Congress correctly stated that “the largest contributing factor of declining U.S. competitiveness in global shipbuilding has been state intervention from competitor countries.”

In other words China and other shipbuilding nations subsidize their industries, at the expense of America’s shipbuilders.

So what is Washington going to do about it?

Basically, there are three options: institute expanded cargo preferences for U.S.-built and -manned vessels, directly subsidize U.S. shipbuilders, or persist in our current dream-like state until the destruction of U.S. maritime supremacy is complete.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for an effective policy response from Washington.
Source: Forbes

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