National Maritime Day—On a Scale of One to Ten How are We Doing?  How should we be doing?

NDTA Headquarters Maritime Day Editorial—22 May 2019


Editorial co-authored by VADM W. A. Brown (ret), USN, President and CEO of NDTA and NDTA’s Military Sealift Committee

“National Maritime Day is observed on May 22, the date that the American steamship Savannah sailed from the United States to England [in 1819]. This event marked the first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean using steam propulsion.  On May 20, 1933, Congress declared May 22 as National Maritime Day. During World War II more than 250,000 members of the American Merchant Marine served their country, with more than 6700 giving their lives, hundreds being detained as prisoners of war and more than 800 ships being sunk or damaged.” (

“Savannah [a commercial vessel] had proven that a steamship was capable of crossing the ocean, but the public was not yet prepared to trust such means of conveyance on the open sea, and the large amount of space taken up by the engine and its fuel made the ship uneconomic in any case.   It would be almost another 20 years before steamships began making regular crossings of the Atlantic, and another American-owned steamship would not do so until 1847, almost 30 years later.” (Wikipedia)  

State of Play Today

It is a good time to step back to assess where we are today in light of our nation’s history as a seagoing nation.  As the example of Savannah illustrates, it takes time to adopt new approaches, technologies and national strategies.  The U.S. maritime industry grew out of the need to support commerce.  Today we recognize the interests of the maritime industry are important to U.S. industry through the Jones Act and cargo preference laws outlining the shipment of government impelled cargoes.  One might question if we are truly a maritime nation from a commercial point of view.  Clearly the Jones Act (of 1920) is a successful commercial model that provides the added benefit of protecting our U.S. national security interests as commercial goods are shipped from U.S. ports to U.S. ports.  At a recent NDTA Ports Conference at Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies, the question was asked, “Why is the Jones Act important to the U.S. ports system?”  Quickly, the answer came from the Port of Anchorage, “When we take cargo which originated from a U.S. port [on a U.S. flagged vessel], we know it has been properly inspected and we can treat it as having passed U.S. security standards.”  Security of the U.S. supply chain has always been an issue, but today the stakes are higher than they have ever been.  Beyond our shores, our modern commercial supply chains are threatened today by China’s expanding network.  We will shortly lose the ability to influence the convergence of economic and security outcomes without a new approach.

Today, there are over 6,100 active commercial vessels sailing internationally.  The U.S. has only 81 active ships sailing internationally—with sixty of those ships supported by U.S. military supplemental funding.  Those in the blue-water industry know that without DoD cargo preference laws and DoD added-stipend funding, we would likely be near zero U.S. flagged ships sailing internationally.  We move 1 million of the 28 million containers around the world.  Of the containers entering and leaving U.S. ports, U.S. Flagged ships move less than 2%.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The U.S. military is at a crossroads with respect to its aging Surge / Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF). The crisis in readiness and capability is a symptom of a larger problem, evidenced by the inability of the U.S. to maintain a healthy commercial maritime industry.  The erosion of the condition of the RRF means we are limiting our ability to provide the U.S. military with the necessary capabilities and resources to satisfy national economic and security goals.

When contrasting Blue (aka Ocean) Economy strategies between the U.S. and China, the view emerges that if China is just fractionally successful in their extremely bold, clearly defined strategy, they could, by themselves, change the world order.  Meanwhile, success for the U.S. would—optimistically—keep our nose above water. 

As the Chinese have recognized, the Blue Economy is a system of systems. In the U.S., it is not operating as a system, but rather as independent and disconnected capabilities coupled with vaguely defined outcomes. There exists no defined intersection of a U.S. flagged commercial fleet, the RRF fleet and our organic naval fleet. This extends further to the eroding industrial base and broader supply chain security concerns.

Words and actions matter. Today when addressing the Blue Economy, there is a growing disconnect between the two. The word “crisis” is often featured in assessing Sealift readiness, yet the solution set spans decades while relying on solutions created decades ago.  

Based on our aging RRF fleet and the lack of an integration with a Blue Economy Strategy we are at the very lowest end of the 10 point scale.  To make meaningful progress will require treating the Blue Economy as a system of systems, and matching words with actions.  It is a direct challenge to our nation—to satisfy our national economic and security goals.

Celebrate National Maritime Day?

You bet.  We have a healthy Jones Act fleet helping our economy in record levels.  Our mariners and the security they bring are profoundly important.  But there are opportunities to improve our leverage in international trade by extending certain principles of the Jones Act to U.S. exports, where these principles align with the view of the Blue Economy as a system of systems.  This should be a bi-partisan conversation that needs to go from 5 mph to 65 mph soon.  It took 30 years for steamships to become the standard of their time.  Today it is all about networks and we don’t have 30 years.


Full editorial here: U.S. Maritime Strategy.








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