What it will take to keep the world’s ships running on time


I spent almost 10 years in the depths of the ocean, completely hidden from view. During long voyages, I tracked down the huge civilian cargo ships and oil tankers sailing near my warships. An exquisite system allows them to operate essentially 24/7, transporting cargoes among a network of global mega-ports.

Those of us who were at sea watched them with respect for their size and scale, mingled with the feeling that they were so often on the verge of trouble. Shippers’ time and cost margins are slim, and their crews are incredibly small, often under-trained or underpaid.

All of these factors contribute to the current delays of raw materials and consumer goods in the global supply chain. Of course, these delays are not entirely dependent on shipping. But given that more than 90% of internationally traded goods pass through what 19th century naval strategist Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan called “sea lines of communication” a good place to get more attention. Huge ports are also part of the maritime infrastructure, and some of them have become structural bottlenecks, much like one thinks of critical geographic bottlenecks like the Suez or Panama Canals or the Straits of Hormuz or Malacca.

Today, significant backups and delays continue to be the norm at ports around the world. The largest American complex is located in Southern California, in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. For weeks, dozens of ships have been waiting at anchor offshore. Thousands of empty containers still have to be sent to other ports. And as is the case in many other key ports around the world, freight infrastructure is overwhelmed.

Part of the problem has to do with how we design supply chains. They don’t really look like chains in the sense that they are simple, linear tracks. If they were, the problems would be easier to resolve. More precisely, they are envisioned as networks or even a cloud, as non-linear as the sea itself. Essentially, the global supply chain is a multitude of separate nodes that only work well if they are in sync.

When the “just in time” system falters, the extraordinary interconnections of the network – usually a strength – create problems. As COVID-19 made it difficult to get labor to docks to unload ships, these problems were magnified across the network. COVID-19 is also hampering the flow of mariners from land to sea and back again as national quarantines, testing regimes and border closures are put in place.

Global maritime systems have yet to adapt to all of this. Large shipping companies (AP Moller-Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Co., China Ocean Shipping Co., Evergreen Marine Corp.) and associated organizations (United Nations International Maritime Organization, Lloyd’s of London) must collectively assess bottlenecks in ‘strangulation. Governments should participate through their associated agencies, such as the US Maritime Administration (MARAD). It is basically an intelligence function, and only by pooling large sets of data can one understand the extent of the problem. President Joe Biden is right to keep a conversation going with retailers and other business leaders about measures to move the supply chain forward.

(I am a board member of the Greek Onassis Foundation, which operates a large international shipping company headquartered in Europe, and I consult for Crowley Maritime in the United States)

Armed with a clear idea of ​​how the maritime network works, experts can apply appropriate analytical tools (including emerging artificial intelligence techniques) to formulate solutions. In the United States, for example, a plan is needed to move the delivery of goods from overloaded ports to underutilized ports. The United States has few mega-ports (only Los Angeles and Long Beach are in the top 20 in the world) but many smaller ones – a legacy of our vast coastline and decentralized infrastructure. This weakness could become a strength.

It would also be helpful to know where it is best to invest in port improvements. As the Ministry of Transport enforces the recently passed infrastructure legislation, this effort should be a priority.

In the long term, it is important to invest in global shipping, starting with the sailors themselves. In the United States, this means supporting merchant marine colleges, including the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and state maritime colleges. Governments, including the United States, should also subsidize environmentally friendly shipping operations and improvements in port technology – including collapsible shipping containers, “smart” unloading cranes and warehouses. pop-up to manage overflows.

The current global system has been out of sync not only by labor shortages induced by COVID-19, but also by extraordinarily delayed demand for durable goods, aging and neglected infrastructure and severe weather disruption. The combined effects will take a year to wear off.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, this problem also has a geopolitical aspect. Controversy over which country operates a particular port or channel discourages information and intelligence sharing. Competition between the United States and China also complicates efforts to resynchronize the global shipping system.

The pressure on shipping networks is ever increasing and there are no other options left to move most of the world’s goods. International cooperation between nations, interagency coordination within countries and, above all, a high level of public-private integration will be needed to unravel the problems of the system.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired US Navy Admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander NATO, and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Rockefeller Foundation and Vice President of Global Affairs of the Carlyle Group. His latest book is “2034: A Novel of the Next World War”.

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