WASHINGTON, DC - Leaders of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, and U.S. Maritime Administration this week joined the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition – designed to bring together the U.S. defense industrial base, private-sector U.S. companies and key military decision makers – in a discussion titled “Jones Act & Homeland Security Roundtable.”

The panel presented an opportunity for participants, including U.S. Maritime Administrator (MARAD) Chip Jaenichen, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Rear Admiral Mark Butt and J. Ryan Hutton of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), to discuss the importance of the U.S. merchant marine with much of the conversation centering on the potential threats posed to homeland and national security if the Jones Act was not in place.

“If we allowed foreign-flagged vessels to be unfettered in the U.S. and foreign crews to be unfettered in the U.S., that would be one more operational dynamic that we would have to deal with,” said CBP’s Hutton. “The [Jones Act] gives us the ability to segment that risk…If we eliminate the Jones Act then that would be a huge gaping security hole for us operationally in terms of when these crews arrived in the U.S. if they were allowed to go anywhere they were allowed to go.”

Added MARAD Administrator Jaenichen, “A ship entering our waterways can gain potentially deep access to our interior. The Jones Act is not primarily an economic or trade measure. Plain and simple, the Jones Act is about defense and about security, and from my perspective, it works.”

The potential for significant increased costs to the U.S. government to regulate and police an environment with foreign ships operating in domestic commerce of the nation was also a hot topic for the panel.

USCG’s RADM Butt expressed his concerns with the Coast Guard’s current capacity to inspect and target foreign crews compared to what would be required in a world without the Jones Act, saying, “Foreign vessels are required to give a 96-hour advance manifest filing. That allows us the time to work on the targeting of the individuals. Without this notice, they will be sitting offshore until screening is done.”

Allowing foreign ships access to domestic trades could have real world implications, continued RADM Butt, “When we have the rebound of the price of crude, we’re going to have a lot more flow on the waterways. You’d be talking about foreign crews in the heartland of America with some of the worst [chemical] products that are carried on our waterways. If that’s the risk we want to take, that would be interesting.”

The panel also addressed the importance of the Jones Act to national and homeland security, including the importance of the law for U.S. merchant mariner, sealift and shipbuilding capacity during times of peace and foreign conflict.

“When it comes to national security and the economic health of the nation, especially as we’re talking about dealing with the non-contiguous trade, and I’m talking about trade to Puerto Rico, trade to Hawaii, and trade to Alaska, the Jones Act is absolutely the cornerstone of the national strength and security,” said MARAD Administrator Jaenichen. “The Jones Act is sound policy. It is a granite pillar on which our national defense and homeland security rely.”

“The Maritime Administration’s broader mandate is to ensure that our nation has the capacity and capability to forward deploy our armed forces and to be able to sustain them once they arrive in theater … 50 percent of our active mariner pool comes from the Jones Act coastwise trade,” said MARAD Administrator Jaenichen. “The Jones Act supports a robust American shipbuilding and repair industry along with a merchant marine. Shipbuilding and repair contributes $37 billion in gross domestic product annually and $25 billion in annual labor income. Our shipbuilding industry is the largest employer in several states paying strong family supporting middle class wages.”

MARAD Administrator Jaenichen also took the opportunity to address claims made by critics who seek to tie the Jones Act to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico by saying:

“For decades the Jones Act has served as an economic backstop for Puerto Rico and Hawaii providing reliable capacity, operational efficiency and frequency of service to those islands. When foreign shippers refuse to service them because those markets are very small and very remote…critics say [the Jones Act] punishes residents in Puerto Rico. These attacks are unfounded, there is no supporting information and every time the government has taken a look at it they have found it to be the contrary of that.”

In closing, MARAD Administrator Jaenichen reminded the conferees that, “The greatest evacuation in history was by volunteers of Jones Act vessels was 9/11 off Manhattan when 500,000 were evacuated by volunteers and Jones Act vessels. Would foreign flagged ships do that for us? I’m sure they would if they were paid. But our folks do it because it’s the right thing to do.”