The State of the American Merchant Fleet: Inside the Decline

The State of the American Merchant Fleet: Inside the Decline

The American merchant fleet has declined quite noticeably over time. Although there is no shortage of people and companies that own vessels in this country, the vast majority of these ships no longer fly the U.S. flag.

While our nation doesn’t exactly feel the effects of this situation right now, it would be a different story if we went to war. Relying on foreign-flagged ships to carry our military’s cargoes isn’t sound military strategy. Residents of other countries don’t have as much of an incentive to deliver materials on time and could gain access to classified technology. Foreign crews may also have a reluctance to transport U.S. materials to a war zone.

We saw this very behavior in 1991, during the Gulf War mobilization. During that time, crew members from 13 foreign-flagged vessels forced their ships away from the war zone in an act of rebellion.

cargo ship

How much has our merchant fleet shrank?

The U.S. merchant fleet had its heyday in the years following World War II. During the war, the U.S. military grew to a vast size. The government had also commissioned many Liberty ships to aid the Navy during the war.

But since the early 1950s, the merchant fleet has shrunk considerably. The U.S. had a whopping 1,288 merchant ships in 1951. But by 1990, that number had decreased to just 408. Even then, the military still had to use foreign-flagged ships to supply it during the Gulf War. In the past three decades, the numbers have dwindled even further. Today, the U.S. has just 81 merchant vessels that fly our country’s flag.

There really is no precedent for this decline. Merchant ships are still needed during wartime, despite the presence of heavy lift aircraft. Legislators have tried, with mixed success, to save the merchant fleet in recent years.

They have created cargo preference laws, requiring all Pentagon supplies to be delivered on U.S. merchant ships. Lawmakers have also stood by the Jones Act, even though it was waived for a short time last year during Hurricane Maria. 

Putting the decline into context

Despite some efforts to save the merchant fleet, the U.S. still lags far behind other countries of similar size when it comes to military preparedness. For instance, China spends more money on its military than any country aside from the U.S. But China has almost 5,000 more deep-water merchant vessels than the United States. These vessels are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Of course, the decline of the U.S. merchant fleet also means a decline in the number of qualified merchant mariners. The mariners that crew U.S. merchant ships are citizens of the United States and thus have an interest in making sure their country’s cargo gets carried to and from its destination. As the number of ships decline, it becomes harder and harder for U.S. merchant mariners to find good jobs and stay in those jobs for a long period of time.

Indeed, a recent MARAD report found that, if the United States was dragged into a major war, the country would face a shortage of 1,800 mariners. Such a drastic shortage is quite shocking, and the negative effects could be staggering.

In order to support our military in times of need and transport U.S. cargo like food aid during peacetime, our country needs to rebuild its merchant fleet and put more mariners to work. This would not only increase the strength of America’s shipping capabilities, it would also increase the number of well-paying, secure union jobs.

Here at Out2Sea, we believe a strong U.S. merchant fleet is good for both national security and for the livelihood of merchant mariners. Read more about us.

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