The Importance of the Jones Act Fleet to U.S. Homeland Security

The M-V PAUL R. TREGURTHA exits the Poe Lock- Photo Courtesy of Interlake Steamship Co.

Published May 18, 2016 9:00 PM by James H.I. Weakley

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2016 edition.)

The Jones Act plays a vital role in safeguarding America’s borders.

By James H.I. Weakley

Our homeland and national security have become inextricably intertwined over the past decade, a fact recently confirmed by a 2016 presidential candidate who astutely observed, “Homeland security is national security.”

It’s been long understood that the U.S. merchant marine plays an integral national security role in times of war and peace. What is less understood is its critical importance in the protection of our homeland security. This fact was highlighted in two recent analyses by respected homeland security voices, both of whom concluded that America is safer and more resilient because of a strong domestic maritime industry and the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, Section 27 of which is commonly known as the “Jones Act.”

The “Achilles Heel” of the North American Economy

One report came from the Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an office charged with reviewing the infrastructure of the nation to ensure the resilience of the American economy. It analyzed the economic security importance of a key element of the Great Lakes navigational infrastructure — the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the lower four Great Lakes. The analysis centers on the consequences of a failure of the locks, in particular the Poe Lock, the larger of the two. But the broader message is the importance of a strong and resilient Jones Act fleet. 

DHS concludes in its analysis that a six-month closure of the Poe Lock would result in a “severe recession” in not just the Midwest but North America as a whole. It explains that the Great Lakes Jones Act fleet is a crucial linchpin in the supply chain for American integrated steel production and that such a disruption would all but idle the most efficient vessels and result in “widespread bankruptcies and dislocations throughout the economy.”   

According to DHS, the trade pattern for domestic iron ore makes U.S.-flag Great Lakes shipping and the Soo Locks “one of the Nation’s most economically vital systems,” yet also “potentially the least resilient.” Because of their potential for disrupting shipping services, DHS calls the Soo Locks the “the Achilles heel of the North American industrial economy.” If the Poe Lock went down and the Jones Act fleet largely idled, DHS estimates that 75 percent of American integrated steel manufacturing would end within two to six weeks and warns, “100% of North American appliances, automobile, construction equipment, farm equipment, mining equipment, and railcar production would shut down.”

Consider this language from the report describing the consequence of an interruption in shipping services:

Almost 11 million people in the United States and potentially millions more in Canada and Mexico would become unemployed due to the production stoppage, and the economy would enter into a severe recession. There are no plans or solutions that could mitigate the damage to manufacturing industries dependent on this supply chain.

The message from DHS is clear: Without the Great Lakes Jones Act fleet, the North American economy would be devastated. The report estimated that unemployment in Michigan and Indiana would spike to levels as high as 22 percent or more.

Protecting America’s Borders

A second analysis regarding the importance of the domestic maritime industry to homeland security was offered recently by former Senator Slade Gorton, widely respected for his service to the state of Washington as both its attorney general and senator and also for his key role as a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, better known as the “9/11 Commission.” Senator Gorton and his fellow 9/11 Commission members issued a landmark 567-page report in 2004, which became the guiding document for America’s response to the war on terror after the attacks in 2001.

In an op-ed published by The Hill last month, Senator Gorton opines that any discussion about border security in the context of the presidential election or otherwise should look no further than the Jones Act and the importance of U.S. maritime to our homeland security. He argues that too often the role of maritime is ignored as commentators traditionally focus on the economic and national security benefits of a strong American fleet. He goes on to say, “To me, however, the most vital benefit of the Jones Act is the law’s critical role in protecting America’s borders and homeland security.” 

In particular, Senator Gorton cautions about expanding the already elaborate procedures and resources necessary to regulate foreign seamen who enter the U.S. on international ships. He finds the security profile of the Jones Act fleet “far more reassuring,” given that American crews and operators are required to pass intensive background checks and carry U.S. Coast Guard-issued licenses and credentials. Senator Gorton calls American vessel owners and crews “full partners with American law enforcement agencies.” The domestic fleet helps “plug a porous border,” he adds, a benefit of the Jones Act that is “too often overlooked and should not be underestimated.”

Considered together, the DHS report and the article by Senator Gorton should serve to caution any policymaker responsible for the security of our homeland against unnecessary disruption. And while the domestic maritime fleet does not exist to reduce illegal immigration and keep our borders more secure, the consequences of an absence of the fleet are highly relevant in any policy debate on the subject. – MarEx   

Jim Weakley is President of the Lake Carriers’ Association, representing the U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.