Two key supporters of the Jones Act recently spoke in defense of the law, as well as offered Congress some perspective on the challenges facing the American maritime industry, during a joint hearing between the House Armed Services Committee, the Readiness Subcommittee and the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
Maritime Administrator Rear Adm. Mark Buzby (USN, Ret.) and U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) Commander Gen. Darren McDew both provided testimony during the hearing, which took place on March 8. While both officials spoke on various aspects of Transportation Command posture – the subject of the hearing – they shared a common theme: The Jones Act, the U.S.- flag fleet and the merchant mariner pool are critical components of our national defense.
In his testimony, McDew summarized the history and current issues facing the maritime industry: “The U.S.-flagged commercial fleet is vital to the Joint Force’s ability to accomplish its mission. USTRANSCOM’s relationships with U.S.-flagged sealift partners are formalized through the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) and the Maritime Security Program (MSP). Since their establishment in 1996, participation in these programs by privately owned U.S.- flagged commercial shipping has proven a cost-effective means to assure access to sealift capability, capacity, and worldwide networks. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or the Jones Act, and the Cargo Preference Act are intended to ensure a baseline of ongoing business to support our inter-coastal shipping capacity and maintain a market for U.S. industrial shipyard infrastructure to build, repair, and overhaul U.S. vessels. However, the dwindling size of the domestic U.S. inter-coastal shipping fleet demands that we reassess our approach to ensure that the U.S. retains critical national security surge sealift capabilities.”
Buzby said, “As maritime administrator, I take seriously my charge to ensure that we have enough U.S.-flagged ships and mariners to serve our nation’s commercial and military sealift requirements. I am working closely with USTRANSCOM, the Military Sealift Command and the U.S. Coast Guard and the commercial maritime industry to address these issues.”
He continued, emphasizing the importance of cargo preference to the maintenance of the U.S.-flag fleet: “Access to cargo is critical for shipowners to compete globally while operating under the U.S. flag and employing U.S. mariners. Cargo preference laws keep U.S.-flagged operators competitive by requiring U.S.- flagged vessels to transport significant portions of cargoes purchased with federal funds. In addition, the Jones Act U.S.-build, ownership and crew requirements support mariner jobs and give us access to domestic maritime assets needed in times of war or national emergency. It also serves national security priorities by supporting U.S. shipyards and repair facilities that produce and repair American-built ships. U.S. mariners on Jones Act vessels serve as another layer of national defense.”
When asked what could be done to maintain and grow the merchant mariner pool, as well as the U.S.-flag fleet, Buzby responded, “It comes down to cargo. We’ve heard it said many times, cargo is king. Without cargo, there’s no need to have the ships, and without the ships, there’s not the mariners. So, to have cargo available for U.S.-flagged vessels to carry, that’s the root of the problem. And whether we do that through cargo preference or through bilateral trade agreements or freeing up cargo that’s available, that’s the root of the problem.”
McDew talked about the military readiness the Jones Act helps provide, saying, “For me, the Jones Act, from a warfighting perspective, is all about the mariners, and the ability to keep mariners trained and ready to go to war. The ships that are in the Jones Act are also useful, but the primary thing we get from the Jones Act are the mariners. And those mariners have been with us in every conflict that I can imagine, and suffered great loss, and still stay with us.”
Buzby continued that thought, adding, “The Jones Act really is the linchpin. It’s foundational to our merchant marine as it is today. It’s not just the ships, it’s the mariners, which are critical, and it’s the infrastructure that supports the shipbuilding and ship repair part of the industry, and all of the supply chain that impacts that. Because that all has impact on our government shipbuilding programs, as well. The costs of all of those, and the availability of shipbuilders are greatly impacted by that, as well. So, it has far-ranging impact.”
But not all crises are military in nature, as Buzby spoke about in his testimony: “In addition to providing the RRF ships, MARAD manages National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) vessels used to train merchant mariners and respond to national disasters. Most recently, the Ready Reserve Fleet and NDRF ships were activated to support relief activities of other government agencies following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as was done for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Sandy, and the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. During these deployments, MARAD vessels supplied citizens and first responders with housing, meals, logistical support, and relief supplies, including critical Federal Aviation Administration replacement air navigation equipment that was delivered by one of the activated vessel to the Virgin Islands.”
McDew also touched on this, stating, “When hurricanes ravaged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, our joint enabling and strategic mobility assets deployed to provide critical capabilities including planning support, aeromedical evacuation, and life-saving supplies. Our efforts demonstrated the nation’s resolve and strengthened partnerships worldwide.”
Buzby concluded, “Our military’s surge sealift capabilities rely on our nation’s commercial fleet and the mariners who crew these ships – in both peace and war. The decline of the U.S.-flag fleet and the availability of qualified U.S. mariners are of great concern to MARAD and we are exploring a range of options to increase the size of the U.S.-flag fleet with our stakeholders and the administration. MARAD will continue to leverage, as appropriate, the current mainstays of the merchant marine to support strategic sealift: the Jones Act, MSP, and cargo preference…. You have my commitment that we will consider any and all options intended to foster, promote, and develop the U.S. maritime industry.”
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