Oil pipeline hack exposes weaknesses in America’s merchant navy

When Russian hackers disrupted the supply of fuel to the East Coast, they did more than raise the specter of higher gas prices. They once more exposed weakness in America’s merchant navy and our ability to build commercial ships.

Soon after the hack was announced, discussion immediately turned to whether President Biden should waive the Jones Act, a 101-year-old law that requires all goods shipped between U.S. ports to be shipped on U.S.-made, U.S.-flagged and U.S.-crewed vessels.

The Jones Act was aimed at protecting the U.S. shipbuilding industry by requiring inter-U.S. trade to be conducted on U.S. ships. But American labor and production costs are high, and over the decades, America moved away from ship transport and leaned more heavily on rail and truck transport to move goods within the U.S. territory.

That means American demand for Jones Act vessels has fallen, which means fewer commercial ships and reduced U.S. shipbuilding capacity. This reality tends to hit America hardest during times of crisis. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, the federal government waived the Jones Act requirement so that non-U.S. ships could help the small number of U.S. ships move goods and supplies to Americans in need.

It’s not clear whether Biden will waive the Jones Act in response to the oil pipeline hack. But the fact that the option is being discussed is enough to prove the point: America’s merchant navy is vastly undersized, and this creates a national security problem during a crisis.

This problem would become even more apparent at a time of war, when our merchant navy acts as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy and helps transport goods and supplies.

AUSN believes it’s time for America to act proactively – before the next crisis hits – to reinvigorate the U.S. shipbuilding industry and avoid these situations before they arise.

To that end, AUSN released a paper this week that analyzes some of the factors that have prevented a more vibrant industry. These factors include the need to educate and inspire the students who will someday build or operate ships, which will help ensure the U.S. Navy has the staff it needs to manage a growing fleet.

AUSN also recommends a rethinking of how the costs of large Navy vessels are justified, and policy changes that increase incentives for Sailors to stay in service.

“The pipeline hack showed America once more that we don’t have the large ships we need to move supplies,” said AUSN Executive Director Jason Beardsley. “That’s a problem that we’re focused on at the Association of the United States Navy because it quickly becomes a national security issue.”

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