It’s Time for a Comprehensive National Maritime Strategy

Port Operation’s at the Port of Gladstone

The United States finds itself in a curious position as one of modern history’s few great powers that doesn’t control its commercial shipping. In fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the United States owns no commercial ships, has no way to build them, and has nowhere to dock them. As a result, America is highly reliant on foreign partners — some allied, some not — for its economic security.

That dependence would be okay if not for one thing: America currently lacks the ability to protect its economic interests, or that of its allies, during a period of conflict in the western Pacific. Developing this capability will require a comprehensive national maritime strategy — something that the U.S. government currently lacks. This strategy must recognize the need for significant investments and the value of closer cooperation with America’s key allies.

An effective strategy means coordinating U.S. government efforts, in consultation with America’s partners, to address critical vulnerabilities. If a crisis occurred today, the United States would be highly dependent on foreign partners for its shipping, its access to foreign ports, and its shipbuilding — all at a time when America is losing its naval dominance. The United States needs deeper investments at home and abroad to ensure that maritime routes are safe and secure.


Troubles at Sea

The current reality is that the People’s Republic of China has already tilted the maritime playing field in its favor. China produces “more than half of the world’s commercial shipbuilding output,” while the United States is not among the top 15 shipbuilding nations. China also has a global commercial fleet and ownership in ports beyond its shores, while America does not. And more recently, China surpassed the U.S. Navy in numbers of ships.

These asymmetries in maritime power and capability matter. Today, over 80 percent of global trade volume and 90 percent of military equipment, supplies, and fuel still travel by ship. Yet America depends almost entirely on foreign maritime partners. Less than 1 percent of global shipbuilding happens in the United States. Less than 1 percent of the world’s trading vessels fly an American flag. More than 80 percent of port terminals along America’s coasts are owned or operated by foreign companies, and America owns essentially no ports outside the United States.

The lack of its own global commercial fleet does not mean the United States does not have a vital national interest in securing sea lanes. As the world’s largest importer and second largest exporter, the United States relies on its navy to secure its supply lines by ensuring freedom of navigation through global shipping lanes and offering protection to ships of all nations. While the U.S. Navy maintains unparalleled global naval logistics networks capable of projecting naval power anywhere in the world, it is stretched too thin.


How did America find itself in such a difficult position? For one thing, America’s market-driven economic prowess has not translated to maritime security. When faced with the choice of investing in the highly volatile and often unprofitable world of shipbuilding, container shipping, or international ports, American businesses chose to instead invest in more economically attractive opportunities. And while other nations subsidized their shipbuilding and shipping industries as well as the global port networks they maintain, the U.S. government focused on building the most powerful navy. This led to a diminishment of America’s commercial capacity and an overreliance on major players in Europe and Asia.

Regaining the ability to deter requires effort on multiple fronts. Having the strongest navy is necessary but is not sufficient to deter aggression. America should not only expand its navy, but also secure shipping, global ports, and shipbuilding capacity. Bolstering the U.S. merchant marine and maritime industrial base is also necessary but not sufficient. It is inconceivable that the United States can correct decades of neglect to generate sufficient domestic shipbuilding capacity at the speed necessary to reduce its dependence on others. America’s strategy should recognize these limits.

Luckily, the United States has reliable allied partners. Lost in national comparisons of defense spending is that America’s treaty-allied nations have invested far greater resources than it has in shipbuilding, shipping, and associated global port networks. At a time when maritime power is regaining prominence in geopolitics, American maritime strategy should lock in — and expand — these allied assets, just as allies have relied on U.S. military investments.


While America ranks fourth in ship ownership tallied by value, half of that value is in cruise ships. However, having assured access to ships is more important than whether they are owned by or flagged in the United States. Fortunately, commercial shipping is dominated by allies. European firms hold a 54 percent share of the global container shipping market. Companies from Asian allies control another 20 percent. While China is expanding, COSCO (its largest presence in the market) has an 11 percent share, and no other Chinese firms are close.

To lock in access to foreign-owned vessels during times of geopolitical stress when surge capacity is needed, the U.S. Maritime Administration contracts with commercial vessels managed by treaty allies for the transportation of military supplies. These include Denmark’s Maersk, France’s CMA CGM, and Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd. The contracted fee encourages firms to overcome current tax, regulatory, and geopolitical risk hurdles to fly the American flag, which is a program requirement. The amount of capacity contracted for, access to mariners to operate these ships, and the ability to use them when the sea lanes are highly contested should be stress-tested. One unresolved complication is that these firms’ home countries may have competing demands during periods of tension. The forthcoming Constellation class of frigates will expand the U.S. Navy’s escort capabilities, helping protect U.S. and allied nations’ shipping interests during conflicts. Yet with China’s missile shield, they are unlikely to support shipping in the South China Sea during a Taiwan contingency. True deterrence requires the shipping capacity to sustain the military and the U.S. economy even during such contingencies.


Having shipping capacity does not guarantee that boats have anywhere to dock. Beyond its shores, America has virtually no ownership stake in overseas ports. Contrast that with China, which has ownership interests in 92 port projects around the world. Moreover, unlike shipping, the world’s top port operators are dominated by Chinese companies and countries reluctant to show favor during periods of conflict. Operators in America’s treaty allies are further down the list, including Denmark’s APM Terminals (Maersk) and the Philippines’ International Container Terminal Services.

America should enhance coordination within U.S. government agencies and with port operators to ensure priority ports cannot be used for coercion or to America’s disadvantage during periods of conflict. For domestic ports, the National Port Readiness Network seeks to ensure readiness of commercial ports, including accommodations by allied-owned terminals, to support force deployment and other national priorities. For international ports, the U.S. government should define the global ports to which it needs assured access for both military and commercial needs and then secure that access, even if, as with shipping, it contracts for such commitments.

While allied ports in Bahrain, Greece, Italy, and Poland can get ships close to conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the same isn’t true in East Asia. In the event of a Taiwan contingency, shipping to Guam and farther west would be contested. This makes access to ports in Japan and those the U.S. military is helping to build in the Philippines vital. With many nations hesitating to commit to providing support during periods of conflict, the United States is expanding its relationships in the region. This includes financing India’s Adani Ports to build a terminal in Sri Lanka and signing a defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea.

Overcoming the tyranny of distance in the Pacific requires prepositioning programs, the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command’s Mobility Manifesto, and programs like rocket cargo. Together, these initiatives can all help mitigate the danger of having limited access to port terminals during times of conflict.


America’s commercial shipbuilders, working almost exclusively to supply the U.S. Navy while subject to Jones Actrequirements, are reporting record construction backlogs. With its aging fleet requiring more maintenance, the Navy is addressing its aging shipyards with a 20-year, $21 billion plan to modernize facilities and shrink the backlogs that have left nearly 40 percent of America’s attack submarines out of commission. With the United States having fallen from global shipbuilding leadership in 1975 to 19th place today, only 0.13 percent of the world’s shipbuilding capacity resides in North America.

As the recent petition for trade relief and state support filed by the United Steelworkers union and others highlights, Chinese subsidies play a role in this decline. In commenting on this case, the Financial Times observed, “Even Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, believed that shipbuilding was one of the very few industries that deserved national support and should not be left to market forces alone.”

Whether building more crewed or uncrewed surface and underwater naval ships, America should bolster its own shipbuilding capacity. But here again, allies also have an important role to play. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro recently toured South Korean and Japanese shipyards and “called for more allied foreign investment in U.S. shipyards” while he also “doubled down on criticizing the build rates of U.S. shipyards.” The trouble is that there is no reasonable path where scaling up domestic capacity alone, particularly with shortages of skilled labor, can build a big enough navy and rapidly replace ships lost during periods of conflict.

China, Japan, and South Korea dominate global shipbuilding, though many European allies have more capacity than America. Continued partnering with allies for ship maintenance adds capacity and strengthens alliances. The collaborationamong Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, dubbed AUKUS, will help these allies build their own submarines in the long term. Some have suggested Japan, South Korea, and the United States should mirror the AUKUS framework to create a multinational guided-missile destroyer construction program. Yet while the significant size of South Korea and Japan in shipbuilding makes them logical partners, also partnering with nations outside of the same potential geographic sphere of conflict would expand optionality and redundancy.

Naval Service Strength

The challenges facing the combined U.S. Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard in securing the sea lanes are growing. With Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, some vessels now detour thousands of miles to avoid danger. Russia’s war against Ukraine threatens shipments through the Black Sea. In the South China Sea, recent collisions and “blocking maneuvers” by China are just the latest entries in a long list of incidents. Tensions continue to surround Taiwan.

Then there is the uncertain future of deep-sea mining, where China has sprinted to an early dominant lead. At this point, the only thing certain is that mining operations will increase the demand for maritime security. Any comprehensive maritime strategy should consider whether the United States should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Not doing so leaves China as the largest funder of the International Seabed Authority that is currently finalizing the rules and regulations of deep-sea mining. The need to protect subsea cables and the receding Arctic ice are also increasing demand on maritime security.

With all these stresses on commercial shipping lanes, this is no time to surrender leadership in securing the high seas. Yet the growing gap in naval ship numbers is concerning. The Pentagon’s recent China power report estimates that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has more than 370 ships, compared with America’s combat-ready fleet of 290 (though America has more carriers and destroyers and superior submarines). The gap will only widen. China’s fleet is expected to grow 21 percent by 2030, while the U.S. Navy’s latest budget submission projects that the U.S. fleet will remain unchanged. When you also consider that the People’s Liberation Army Navy remains mostly concentrated on the western Pacific where is supplemented by a robust coast guard and maritime militia, questions arise as to whether the U.S. Naval Service is scaled to deter.

While Russia has the world’s third-largest navy, its partnership with China (even with joint exercises in the Japan Sea and Bering Strait) is not as robust as America’s alliances. Japan and South Korea combined match Russia’s strength. Australia’s and Japan’s investments in stronger navies reflect the increasing importance of allied nations in maritime power.

The list of America’s maritime vulnerabilities is long. The time available to address them is short. The United States should urgently act to develop and execute a national maritime strategy, one that prioritizes speed and effectiveness — and one that recognizes the value of cooperation with key allies.



Mark Kennedy (U.S. Congress, MN 2001–2007) is director of the Wilson Center’s Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition, a civic leader supporting the secretary of the Air Force, and president emeritus of the University of Colorado

Jeffrey Kucik is a global fellow at the Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition at the Wilson Center and an associate professor at the University of Arizona.

Image: Spc. Joshua Syberg