America’s economic prosperity and national security depend on free access to global sea lanes and oceanic shipping routes. It is in the oceans and waterways that America’s commercial, military and national interests come together. However, the maritime domain is also where near-peer competitors are testing our resolve. It has never been more important than now for Congress and the new administration to take necessary steps to ensure the United States doesn’t become a declining maritime power.
Deficiencies identified by the Navy League of the United States’ recently released 2021-2022 Maritime Policy report raise alarms for a nation dependent on open sea lanes and maritime superiority for peace and prosperity.
This comes amid the backdrop of a return to the great power competition outlined in the Department of Defense’s most recent National Defense Strategy. The battles of the 21st century have predominantly moved from the hills of Afghanistan to the oceans, archipelagos and waterways of the Arctic, the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific.
If we want to maintain global stability and continue the longest period of peace among great powers in human history, our sea services must have the support of Congress and the administration.
Our naval forces must maintain undersea superiority, improve the readiness of the fleet and aggressively expand shipbuilding capacity. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday has determined the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine to be the service’s No. 1 acquisition priority. A resilient command-and-control network is necessary for maintaining readiness. Additionally, long considered the Achilles’ heel of our sea service wartime capabilities, the strategic sealift fleet is overdue for modernization. To this end, the Navy League strongly recommends an annual shipbuilding budget of at least $30 billion to modernize the fleet and improve critical shipbuilding capacity.
The Marine Corps is undergoing a remarkable transformation to become a leaner and more agile fighting force, able to operate within the littorals under enemy fire. The Navy League strongly supports the bold leadership of the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger and his Planning Guidance that pursues new methods of sea control with greater naval integration. To achieve this new, lighter force, the Marine Corps is shifting its focus from previous capabilities like tank units and Marine Wing Support Groups, toward more relevant capabilities like long-range precision fires. Reductions in total end strength, and the new direction for the Corps that they represent, might alarm some members of Congress. In fact, they are already facing scrutiny. But these transformative efforts, and the overall guidance of the commandant, are pioneering and purposeful and deserve Congress’ full review and support.
As the premier global multi-mission maritime force, the Coast Guard is the ultimate return on taxpayer investment. Demands on its 11 statutory missions continue to grow, from law enforcement and fisheries protection, to search and rescue, and national defense. An annual increase of 5 percent in the Coast Guard’s Operations and Support budget is needed to meet these growing prerogatives while maintaining basic operations. Additionally, Congress must understand the urgency of the Polar Security Cutter program and work diligently to ensure that America has at least six Polar Security Cutters to defend our nation’s interests in the Arctic.
The U.S.-flag Merchant Marine, the umbrella term for all civilian government-owned and commercial ships under the U.S. flag, is the unseen foundation of our economy and armed forces. The U.S.-flag ocean-going fleet has shrunk to half its size since the end of the Cold War. The Navy League asks Congress to strongly support programs and policies that bolster the U.S.-flag fleet such as the Jones Act, which provides $154 billion in annual economic output, $16 billion in tax revenue, $41 billion in annual wages, creates over 650,000 jobs and is vital to American national security. We also advocate for full funding of the Tanker Security Program to ensure that America can refuel its planes, tanks and trucks in the event of a major conflict.
The seas are the primary means of ensuring that critical supplies and products reach our shores, that we continue to support millions of jobs dependent on global trade and that we keep our competitors and potential adversaries an ocean’s length away. As long as we never forget these realities, and we make certain that Congress and the administration do not forget these realities, then we greatly mitigate a future in which America becomes a declining maritime power.
Mike Stevens is executive director of Navy League of the United States. He is 13th Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.