Cargo preference is a national security issue
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There is a national security issue inside the farm bill. Cargo preference programs Food for Peace and Food for Progress, which do so much good for relations with other countries, also help guarantee our ability to wage war. By requiring agriculture cargoes are shipped under the American flag, these programs make significant investments in our U.S.-flag fleet and mariner pool. This program also supports our wider national security goals via the projection of American power abroad; with bags of American-grown food labeled “from the American people,” onboard American ships, the message of our support, and worldwide presence, cannot be missed.

The United States military is the best at many things----we have the best technology, the best equipment, the best people---but what makes us the envy of many other nations is our ability to wage war far from our shores. The U.S. military has long had the capability and the capacity to deliver decisive warfighting efforts to others, instead of fighting near home and placing even more American citizens in harm’s way. The U.S. military is able to do this thanks to its logistics capability, and at the heart of that is the U.S.-flag fleet and patriotic American mariners.

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Time and time again, the U.S.-flag fleet has answered the call. In World War II, American mariners had the highest rate of causalities of any service but would return again and again to deliver the food, ammunition, mail, and defense equipment our troops needed. During the first Gulf War, U.S.-flag ships and American mariners would sail into war zones where other nations refused. In Operation Enduring Freedom, the logistics networks set up by these privately-owned companies helped deliver goods where an American military vessel would be seen as a threat. The Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement, the Maritime Security Program, and other programs guarantee our military access to commercial sealift and other intermodal capacity to support the needs of our military when deployed far from home.

However, these programs do not work without people. As our military presence draws down and the amount of defense material that needs to be shipped is reduced, it is difficult for U.S.-flagged companies to compete against other nations that do not share the American devotion to training, safety, and security standards. But we need to keep American mariners working, with their certifications and training up to date, so that they are there and ready when we need them. Our ability for sustained warfighting far from home is dependent on keeping mariners working---and the Food for Peace program and other forms of cargo preference do exactly that.

Critics contend that the U.S. flag shipping fleet that is used for food aid cargoes has yet to be utilized in support of the DoD sealift mission. If we are to use history as our guide, it would be wise to look at the mariner shortage of 1941-1942 when there were too few mariners to sail Liberty Ships carrying troops and materiel to Europe. Likewise, to state that a military-support resource has yet to be used – and thus is irrelevant – is a faulty argument in light of the common DoD leadership understanding that our nation’s next conflicts will be of an uncertain scope and duration.

We know from MARAD and TRANSCOM testimony that we are facing a tipping for point for American mariners. We know we have a shortage of 1,800 mariners, and that the pool of mariners we have could not sustain surge sealift for more than six months. We know that the international system is more unstable than ever, and that our military is planning for the return of great power competition. What we do not know is what the next war will look like---but we know that we will need American mariners ready to deliver.

Alan Kaplan is national president of the Navy League of the United States.