This is infrastructure’s big moment in America. The Biden administration has come out swinging, initially floating a $3 trillion package and while the Republican counter-proposals are smaller, the U.S. is on course to initiate the largest investment in our increasingly fragile infrastructure in generations. The big debate will be about what counts as infrastructure, but underneath that are several parallel debates. One of the most important is about the line between military and commercial infrastructure and the interconnectivity of the two, specifically for America’s Navy and the maritime industry. This is but one aspect of an ongoing problem of stovepiping aspects of our infrastructure and national security and treating them like they aren’t related.
Both the Biden and Republican definitions of infrastructure miss a key dimension of modern connectivity: what happens on land often starts at sea. Global commerce is connected to sea-based trade—think about the disruptions that arose when the Suez canal was blocked, or closer to home when the Mississippi river was recently closed for shipping due to the failure of a bridge. Our technology is dependent on the seas as well, in the form of undersea cables that carry the vast bulk of our data.
Enter the SHIPYARD Act bipartisan bills put forward by four Democrats, one Independent, and three Republican Senators and a pair of bipartisan Representatives. The genuinely bipartisan nature of the bills is enough to warrant attention and the substance is on the right track with one major change needed.
At core, the SHIPYARD Act is designed to provide funding, in part by using the Defense Production Act (DPA), to help the U.S. Navy refurbish four critical shipyards in Hawaii, Washington (the state), Virginia and Maine. The full name of the act (somewhat unusually) explains its purpose: “Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yard, and America’s Repair Docks.” It’s part of a wider push in Congress to ensure that the United States has the assets it needs to cope with a mounting naval arms race in the Western Pacific and beyond. But the SHIPYARD Act risks focusing too narrowly on the Navy’s own yards and on national security aspects of maritime capacity, overlooking the commercial.
Maritime infrastructure serves both commerce and national security purposes, as well as scientific ones. All three are intertwined; building ships, maintaining ports, maritime engineering, projecting naval power, and engaging in ocean sciences are inherently interlinked. Unfortunately the way the federal government deals with them are not.
In the American conversation of late, we’ve overemphasized the importance of the military dimensions of maritime capacity and given too little thought to the steady deterioration of the U.S. shipbuilding industry. American commercial shipbuilding was a vibrant industry equal in economic size to military shipbuilding in the mid 1970s and employing 180,000 workers in 1980. After then President Ronald Reagan cut subsidies to U.S. commercial shipbuilding, the industry has largely gone away; today America produces less than one half of one percent of the world’s commercial ships. The decline of commercial shipbuilding capacity translates into increased costs for the Navy in building and maintaining its fleet.
We have become reliant on non-American shipping in a way that we refused for the production of automobiles and aircraft, industries that both have received significant taxpayer subsidies during COVID-19 and the great financial crisis. Now, that issue is nuanced—there’s no immediate trade downside to using non-American shipping, especially when European and Asian allies play such large roles in commercial shipping (as does China, of course). But there are real domestic costs: fewer jobs (especially high-quality jobs not centered around 4-year liberal arts college degrees), higher costs for building and maintaining Navy ships, and reduced movement of commerce between U.S. ports.
There is a difference, however, as cargo can only be shipped between parts of the U.S. using American-built ships. America’s founding fathers desired in our first big law (public law 1-2) that cargo shipped between American ports use ships built in America, an idea currently codified in the Jones Act. Given that America is unlikely to abandon the principle behind its oldest law, then without enough American-built ships, domestic shipping is not feasible.
The result of neglecting domestic shipping and port infrastructure is greater congestion on our nation’s roads and rails as well as more pollution. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (nearly 30%) and transportation by truck is far less environmentally sustainable than by ship. Freight rail faces different congestion challenges in keeping up with our ever increasing movement of goods on a fixed number of rails. Investing more in expanding U.S. domestic shipping capacity is critical to building a sustainable infrastructure system for the future.
The Biden team stresses a foreign policy for the American middle class. Connecting a drive to strengthen the U.S. Navy to a wider effort to bolster the civilian dimensions of American maritime capacity would reap economic, environmental, military and political rewards. A better plan would build off the SHIPYARD Act but rather than using DPA authority would instead include funding for dredging operations, port refurbishment, American shipbuilding, and ocean sciences. The Navy, the Department of Transport, commercial port operators, and ship builders should jointly develop plans to maximize this investment. Congress needs to recognize the connections between military and commercial shipbuilding and appreciate that an investment in commercial shipping saves Uncle Sam in defense spending and creates quality middle class jobs.
This is infrastructure’s moment, and a moment to think about American infrastructure in the context of the world’s. Widening the aperture and making the connection between commercial and military dimensions of maritime capacity will benefit America’s economy, environment, and enhance our national security.