When Congress passed the bipartisan CHIPS Act last year, it was not only helping to revive American semiconductor manufacturing; it was also boosting US national security.
As Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo noted in February, “many of our defense capabilities – like hypersonic weapons, drones, and satellites – depend on a supply of chips that aren’t currently produced in America.”
Supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how dependent the United States is for computer chips on Taiwan – an island under constant threat of invasion by China.
There is another law that supports an industry vital to America’s security. The Jones Act requires cargo traveling between two US ports to be transported on American-built ships, with crews that are at least 75 percent US citizens.
Like the CHIPS Act, the Jones Act recognizes that the US must have its own supply of materials and personnel in sectors key to protecting vital interests and allies.
While the act is frequently targeted for repeal by free-market purists, its critics should ask themselves whether they are willing to empower China’s military at the expense of America.
If the US military is called on to defend allies across the Atlantic or Pacific, sealift capability will be vital. That means having a US Merchant Marine that is skilled and well-practiced in its trade.
During World War II, the Merchant Marine brought troops, weapons, and food to Britain in the face of Nazi U-boats. Their casualty rate was higher than that of any US military branch. Without them, the Allies could not have defeated the Axis.
Undermining the Merchant Marine’s ability to prepare for wartime sealift – which repealing the Jones Act would bring – would devastate America’s ability to prevail over its foes.
CHIPS Act vs. Jones Act
There are important differences between the CHIPS Act and the Jones Act.
The CHIPS Act contains $39 billion in federal subsidies for American semiconductor manufacturers to help them expand production within the US. By contrast, America’s shipbuilding industry does not receive government subsidies, even though Chinese shipbuilders received $132 billion from their government between 2010 and 2018.
While Jones Act critics think of it as an economic matter, Beijing recognizes that a country’s merchant shipping and military strength are inextricably linked.
What the two laws have in common is an acknowledgment that a strong industrial base is essential for America’s security and prosperity. They recognize that national security is more important than free trade. If sectors key to national defense lack the necessary equipment and workers, the rest of the economy is vulnerable to America’s adversaries – especially China. Treating the maritime industry as just another sector is asking for disaster should war break out.
The Jones Act supports an estimated 650,000 American jobs, in all 50 states. In 2016, these jobs accounted for more than $72 billion in US value-added, and more than $41 billion in labor compensation.
The act keeps a wide variety of skilled workers employed, performing essential tasks on ships and in shipyards. Repealing it would destroy these vital jobs. And it’s not only the US economy that would suffer.
Jones Act Opponents
Opponents of the Jones Act seem to think America would be more secure if it outsourced its shipbuilding to China, even as it massively subsidizes its shipbuilders at the expense of America.
At a time when bipartisan majorities are embracing long-term investments in industries vital to national security, Jones Act critics are content with a hostile power gaining further advantages over the US.
For all their devotion to the free market, they push for China – a country far less committed to capitalist beliefs than America – to obtain a larger share of the world’s maritime power. One wonders whether they would be so complacent if they considered the consequences of the US being unable to protect its vital interests or the allies it is treaty-bound to defend.
Jones Act and Sealift Capability
Repealing the Jones Act would deal a blow to America’s sealift capability at a time when Washington has already allowed it to atrophy. In a 2019 exercise testing the ability of Ready Reserve Force vessels – ships that bring troops and supplies across oceans – to sail on short notice, only 40 percent of vessels involved proved ready to leave port.
In February 2022, Eric Labs, an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, said sealift was treated like the “black sheep” of shipbuilding. It has been given a low priority even though sealift vessels move about 90 percent of US Army and Marine Corps equipment and supplies.
Last October, US Navy Rear Admiral Michael Wettlaufer, commander of Military Sealift Command (MSC), said that a combination of fewer ships, aging ships, and difficulties recruiting and retaining mariners was impeding MSC’s ability to bring personnel and equipment across oceans.
“I think we’re ignoring the problem,” he warned. Without the Jones Act in place, Washington would feel able to ignore this problem even further.
And it is not only the ships themselves that are struggling; it’s also the people who sail them. The COVID-19 pandemic strained the mental health of mariners, people already tasked with difficult jobs.
A 2021 study by the University of Washington found “nearly half of respondents (49 percent) reporting that their mental health got worse during the pandemic, and 26 percent of respondents reporting their sleep getting worse.”
To recover from the impact of the pandemic, it is essential that mariners have the ability to practice their trade, not be left idle. The Jones Act makes that possible.
When a US Air Force four-star general worries that China may try to conquer Taiwan as early as 2025, undermining the Merchant Marine would severely compromise America’s Armed Forces.
Just like the CHIPS Act aims to ensure that the military’s computer chips will not be threatened by Chinese military might, the Jones Act ensures that its transportation will not be threatened by China, either.
While its critics may think they are solving an economic problem, they are really undermining America’s national security.
Michael Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, VA. He has worked for the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Army.
His writings have been featured in the Center for International Maritime Security, the Center for Maritime Strategy, the Washington Monthly, Divergent Options, Merion West, Wisdom of Crowds, and more.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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