DOT to issue long-awaited national maritime strategy

A federal watchdog agency has confirmed that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to release an official national maritime strategy that officials within the department started working on in 2014.

The strategy, originally due in February 2015, received a deadline extension in 2018 to February 2020. According to an oversight study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) sent to congressional lawmakers on Wednesday, DOT officials told GAO they intend to submit the long-awaited strategy to Congress on time.

GAO also confirmed that the national strategy will address two key areas required by a 2014 congressional mandate: the competitiveness of the U.S.-flag fleet and U.S. sealift capability in the event commercial vessels are needed to support military actions. The law required that the strategy provide recommendations to make the fleet more competitive in international trade and enhance U.S. shipbuilding capacity.

Much of GAO’s study focuses on a major factor in the strategy’s delay: neglecting to include input from key agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

When consulted, DOD officials cautioned that “continued declines in the size and capabilities of the oceangoing U.S.-flag fleet could lead to inadequate capacity for DOD to transport military cargo during a national defense crisis,” the GAO report notes. “Likewise, a potential shortage of [U.S.] mariners could lead to DOD not having adequate crews to operate government-owned reserve ships that may be activated during a wartime surge.”

The maritime industry will be paying close attention to how the strategy addresses the shortfall in the U.S.-flag fleet. GAO officials said seven of 10 stakeholders interviewed for its oversight report “expressed concern that declines in the size of the U.S.-flag fleet could lead to shortfalls in overall capacity or number of certain types of ships needed to carry defense cargo.”

Recent DOD needs assessments found that the existing internationally trading U.S. fleet was “generally sufficient to meet current needs but also raised some concerns about potential future gaps in certain situations,” GAO noted.

The current U.S.-flag internationally trading fleet, for example, has six petroleum tankers, down from 36 in 1990. But DOD estimates potential needs for 86 tankers to fulfill DOD sealift requirements under the National Defense Strategy, according to GAO.

“U.S.-flag tankers and tankers flagged in other countries currently meet DOD needs, but these officials stated that access to allied foreign-flag petroleum tankers is increasingly uncertain in the current geo-political environment,” the study warned.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill in October, maritime experts warned that trade flowing into and out of U.S. ports is increasingly vulnerable as China boosts its maritime investments around the world. That vulnerability prompted Rep. Sean Maloney, D-New York, to point out that neither of the past two U.S. presidential administrations had yet issued the required national maritime strategy.