The Significance of the Maritime Transportation System in the U.S.

International commerce and the global economy rely heavily on maritime travel.

FREMONT, CA: Failure to look beyond the immediate problem of supply chain disruptions in the maritime transportation sector could result in future disruptions with more severe consequences. As a result of the widespread effects of the present supply chain disruptions, more focus has been placed on the affected systems. The supply chain heavily relies on the maritime transportation sector, as 90 percent of trade is transported via maritime means. According to the U.S. Committee on the Maritime Transportation System, the system is a complex network of "waterways, ports, and multimodal landside linkages" that allow different modes of transportation to transfer people and products to and from the water.

While it is straightforward to view the freight delays caused by ships anchored outside of ports as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and to assume that the problem will be resolved once life returns to normal. This perspective disregards underlying issues within the maritime transportation system that could cause or exacerbate crises like the current one. Significant occurrences throughout the previous year reveal issues with the system's security, resiliency, and efficiency, emphasizing the possibility of future catastrophes and providing insight into potential solutions. With its increased communal awareness of the supply chain's fragility, the current crisis presents a chance to solve these challenges. The last year's events should inspire investments in security, resilience, and productivity.

System inefficiencies continue exacerbating issues within the maritime transportation sector and supply chain. Freight delays and backlogs at U.S. ports existed at the start of the year, but they have increased as the system has been unable to keep up. Due to reliance on traditional techniques in scheduling, offloading cargo, and inspections, ships and cargo continue to move at standard speeds without alterations that allow for significant backlog reduction. Inefficiency within the system exacerbates difficulties by preventing a speedy recovery.

While events throughout the year reveal the system's underlying difficulties and risks, they also present opportunities for addressing them. The cyberattack on the port of Houston illustrates the importance of investing in cyber security to create, test, and implement a cyber response strategy to reduce cyber risks. Similarly, enhancing and deploying standard container security equipment can improve cargo tracking and verification, minimizing the risk of unlawful smuggling and the consequences of loss.

Growing ports and facilities to accommodate more ships or diverse cargo is one example of developing resilience that could help the system recover from shocks like the pandemic more quickly. In the same way, as the backlog of ships at ports indicated the need for efficiency improvements, it also hints at the resilience-enhancing effect of adding capacity to the system. Adding system redundancy by establishing backups of digital systems and files or alternative paths to finish procedures could be additional methods of promoting resilience. These investments aid in mitigating the effects of system events and facilitating the speedy restoration of operations.

Improving system efficiency enhances resilience and enables the system to recover more rapidly. Automation and artificial intelligence provide chances to increase efficiencies through the rapid adjustment of schedules and movements of vessels and cargo, the improvement of logistics coordination, and the reduction of waste within the system. The combination of advanced offloading automation and enhanced sight of containers and cargo through security equipment might speed inspection, cargo screening, and the transition to storage or transportation. These efforts to improve the completion of various processes within the system will increase system flexibility and enable it to eliminate backlogs.

The existing state of the supply chain provides visibility and understanding regarding the significance of the maritime transportation system to our national security and economy, which should motivate action. In addition to reinforcing its importance, events throughout the year illustrate vulnerabilities and potential implications if risks are not adequately addressed. Under slightly different conditions, accidents of this type could have comparable or even more severe effects on the supply chain, the economy, and national security.

Due to the heightened awareness regarding the supply chain and the maritime transportation system's role within it, now is an ideal time to argue for investments to improve the system's security, efficiency, and resilience. 

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