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Maritime R&D-Only government funds can revive it . . .
In its 1985 publication, R&D in the Maritime Industry, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) summarized its findings on the state of technology and research in the U. S. maritime industries:
“ . . . the U. S. generally has lagged behind foreign competitors in applying technological advances to much of the U. S.-flag fleet and to the technology of constructing ships. OTA [concludes] that to achieve a competitive position in world shipping and shipbuilding, it is important for the United States to regain technological preeminence in these areas.”
During the three years since that opinion was formulated, what little maritime industries-related research and development that had been under way in this country has all but evaporated. Ship owners, faced with massive worldwide overtonnage, have been loath to invest scarce resources in R&D, preferring to purchase new technology off-the-shelf from abroad whenever urgent competitive grounds have justified the introduction of new ideas. The commercial shipbuilding industry, in far worse economic condition than the ship owners and facing little likelihood of future orders for new construction is in no financial position to risk significant capital on R&D ventures.
The federal government, believing that the private sector should handle maritime R&D, has virtually ceased to back any maritime industry-related effort whatever. (Curiously, however, the government continues to fund significant R&D efforts for other modes of commercial transportation.) The Maritime Administration no longer budgets for research and development and withdrew its support from the highly successful National Shipbuilding Research Program (NSRP) after fiscal year 1986. Even the Navy allocated only $500,000 to the NSRP in fiscal year 1988, despite the program having demonstrated through 1985 savings of at least $75 million on a cumulative investment of less than $7 million.
The Office of Technology Assessment’s 1985 prescription for a more effective federal government role in maritime research included:
► Defining the need for R&D as part of an overall federal maritime policy
► Determining what portion of the maritime R&D effort might best be performed by the private sector and then providing indirect incentives to ensure that the R&D is carried out
► Stimulating coordination and transfer of technology within the maritime industry and from military, foreign, and other sources
► Devoting government maritime R&D to high-risk or long-range problems in support of national goals
► Establishing new or modified institutional arrangements to encourage, coordinate, and foster maritime R&D with federal and/or private support
That is clearly a minimum prescription for a very sick patient.
The necessity for federal government involvement in maritime R&D is obvious. The various components of the industry are unable financially to perform individually (or have performed for them) the research necessary for the United States to regain technological competitiveness with the leading maritime powers.
A survey conducted by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in support of its 1985 report showed that, of the responding firms, some 42% of the shipyards and 63% of the ship operators had financed no significant R&D for the previous five years. The government is doing no better. Not only is the Maritime Administration no longer budgeting for research and development, but Navy R&D funding tied to surface ship design and ship construction is infinitesimal in proportion to the naval shipbuilding budget or to the overall Navy R&D budget.
The Navy lacks an effective central coordination of and commitment to ship design and construction-related technology. Literally dozens of organizations have some degree of responsibility for ship-related research. The David Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center’s magnificent towing tank and other experimental facilities at Carderock and Annapolis are probably the finest in the Free World, yet these facilities must compete on an equal basis with lower-overhead foreign organizations for Navy research-and- development dollars. As a consequence, the Navy’s own in-house capability has been underutilized, and the results of many expensive Navy research programs are probably more accessible to foreign organizations than to U. S. industry.
Cooperation among the government agencies concerned with maritime R<* and what remains of the U. S. maritime industry is necessary to achieve the concentration and the funding required to produce meaningful results. The leading foreign maritime nations enjoy such cooperation as a matter ot course, and it has paid off in maritime innovations that have greatly benefited the foreign fleets.
Any legal impediments to a cooper* tive maritime R&D program should be swept away, and the resultant effort should be adequately and securely funded. (See the 30 December 1987 Second Report of the Commission on Merchant Marine and Defense.) The most effective way to accomplish this is to create a revolving fund financed by annual congressional appropriations matched at some level—perhaps one third to one half of the total—by contributions from the private sector.
With a few exceptions, U. S. mantime corporations are stagnant and dete riorating. Dissension and an almost total lack of cooperation riddle the industry—even among the numerous an fragmented associations that represent the various corporate and labor interests. The industry is the captive of lts own internal quarreling. This disarray is matched within the federal government, where no single unifying policy guides the many agencies that have Ju risdiction over maritime matters. A rc surgence in U. S. maritime research and development would be no panacea for an industry in such difficulties, b without such a renewed effort, there will be no progress.
The economic circumstances of the U. S. maritime industries being what they are, it will be necessary for som6 time to come for the federal government to provide the essential catalyst any renaissance of maritime research and development in the United States-
Mr. Baker is the editor of Combat Fleets of World, published by the Naval Institute Press.
Proceedings / December