A New Maritime Advanced Research Project Agency Is Key To The Blue Economy


Success for the U.S. economy, national security and climate change rests with the ocean. To help America win at sea and in the Blue Economy, the U.S. needs a new “Advanced Research Project Agency” focused on the maritime.

Today, powerful technological and environmental forces are shaping how we use our ocean. As a steward of the world’s second largest Exclusive Economic Zone, America has an opportunity to lead new Blue Economy sectors such as offshore wind, aquaculture and clean shipping technologies.

Equally powerful economic and geopolitical forces are challenging America’s long-standing military dominance of the maritime. And while unmanned technology, new sensors and other advanced naval technology becomes accessible to more and more ocean stakeholders, America is struggling.

America should be leading these multifaceted transformations.

But America’s lack of strategic vision, commitment, and ability to execute on a Blue Economy Strategy has let other countries in Asia and Europe race ahead.

It is time to face an ugly truth.

America’s current maritime challenges are big and complex, requiring big interagency muscle movements and tough “all-of-government” approaches to address. And with a grab-bag of ill-funded or oft-ignored maritime stakeholders scattered throughout the Federal Government, America is poorly organized to compete in the Blue Economy.

An Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Maritime–MARPA–can help. By mirroring the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, streamlining aging maritime bureaucracies, and harnessing the best minds across the U.S., America can move far faster to address the complex maritime challenges of today.

By concentrating strategy formulation, policy coordination and marine-oriented technology exploitation into a single agency, the Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, and the legacy Federal and State stakeholders of Ocean-related policy can stop thrashing about and, instead, focus on executing an integrated, all-of-government Blue Economy strategy.

An Advanced Research Projects Agency-based approach can re-energize America’s waterfront by setting America’s maritime research agenda (around, say, autonomous vessel technologies, new energy sources or floating offshore windfarms), developing fast-track policy approval processes, attracting new private investment, speeding technology transfer and ensuring appropriate scientific oversight into Blue Economy decision-making. The sky is the limit.

Ultimately, MARPA can offer the framework for a distinct maritime-oriented Federal agency, uniting America’s disparate set of Federal maritime stakeholders under a single, integrated bureaucratic structure.

Maritime Advanced Research Projects Agency At The Waterfront

A MARPA can help America coordinate a cohesive, all-of-government approach to the maritime, identifying gaps, prioritizing investments, and ensuring a rational approach to new technologies.

America certainly needs help. Despite spending trillions of dollars, America’s maritime investments are too prone to get frittered away for cosmetic, short-term projects. Far too many U.S. waterways and maritime transport critical infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. Shipyards are broken. And as the U.S. Navy grapples with a slow-moving readiness crisis, the organization struggles to understand unmanned platforms, preferring to innovate by arranging and then re-arranging unmanned vessel commands. America’s supply chain teeters on the brink, hemmed in by undersized and overused port infrastructure, while other perfectly viable ports and waterways across the continental United States are under-utilized and almost forgotten.

At the Government level, inter-agency co-ordination is even more of an issue. A bewildering array of Federal Agencies, State organizations and County, City and Port managers are, in the absence of any guidance on what to prioritize, racing off to pursue their own agendas.

The lack of strategic oversight and governmental fragmentation is obvious. Upon coming into office, the Biden administration made big and bold promises about new offshore wind power. But there’s no roadmap to get things going. Most of the technology and manufacturing base rests overseas. At home, the enabling infrastructure is nowhere near ready. Service vessels needed to support these notional projects are not set up, nor is a workforce plan in place to train the 100,000 maritime workers that will be needed across the Blue Economy if these technologies were to reach their full potential in the upcoming decade.

As brave new visions clash with an ugly reality, efforts to invest in America’s waterfront bog down, and disillusionment only drives disinterest and cyclic disinvestment.

Why a new Government Agency? Why MARPA?

Given the speed and scale of the shifts that the ocean, climate and maritime sectors are facing, coupled with an inability of the market to move quickly enough, America’s approach to the maritime demands an “all-of-government” effort that current U.S. Government stakeholders are ill-prepared to muster.

A Maritime Advanced Research Projects Agency could push and position America to lead in fast-moving mega-trends by:

  • Spearheading a U.S. move to more autonomous vessels and digitalization of ships. DARPA investments has gone largely to autonomous vehicles and aviation, so as a result, most of the autonomous vessel technologies are being developed in Europe and Asia, leaving the U.S. trailing far behind.
  • Leading the way to autonomous ports and waterway infrastructure. The benefits of autonomy, if coupled with cyber and data security, can move beyond vessels into a land-side infrastructure of smart buoys, cranes and ports.
  • Changing the Waterfront to address Climate Change and new weather patterns. By advancing climate change-fighting technologies (e.g., ocean-based protein, kelp farms, offshore windfarms), a MARPA organization can drive development of an “innovation backbone” of maritime workforces, service vessels and ports.
  • Developing more sustainable maritime fuels. The Biden Administration made an electoral pledge to move global shipping to enforceable emission targets that align with the Paris Climate Agreement, and MARPA could accelerate necessary technological development within this critical decade, potentially, in conjunction with the Department of Energy, exploring new nuclear power-based propulsion or fuel conversion alternatives.
  • Advance sustainable (low carbon) port infrastructures. Ports need help developing secure, low-carbon transshipment operations with trucks and rail.
  • Design new ports within the U.S. for freight operations. Explore alternatives to mega-ship terminals, focusing on micro-terminals and floating port infrastructure such as floating cranes, freight barges and at-sea distribution centers.
  • Advance “Short Sea” Distribution Networks. Short Sea shipping and distribution moves containerized cargo from large to smaller ports and integrates palletized cargo into the maritime, and off America’s roadways, reducing congestion, carbon emissions and road fatalities.
  • Develop Innovative, Long-term Maritime Strategies. The U.S. is facing strategic competition from other rising powers, but lacks coordinated maritime strategies to address gaps and opportunities.
  • Oversight of new Blue Economy technologies. As new Blue Economy technologies emerge, they will need to develop agile regulatory oversight and safeguards. Physical, digital and biological oversight requirements for offshore windfarms, autonomous vessels and other maritime innovations are poorly understood and cannot be developed in a piecemeal fashion after the fact.

These changes at the waterfront are happening. But without a cohesive, speedy “all-of-government” approach, private sector investment and market forces will struggle to push America’s aged, poorly waterfront infrastructure forward. A MARPA can develop economic incentives, holistic institutional support, and supportive regulatory framework required to bring in new approaches while overcoming historical underinvestment in research, development, innovation or digitalization in the U.S. maritime sector.


ARPA, DARPA And IARPA Offer Great Models:

The Advanced Research Projects Agency approach has been used as a model by the Department of Energy (ARPA-E) as well as the Department of Defense (DARPA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (IARPA) to quickly advance “high-risk, high-payoff” deep-tech solutions requiring comprehensive research and, potentially, private sector participation. They are all flexible organizations that work. Already, the Biden Administration has proposed two new ARPAs, an ARPA-C for climate and an ARPA-H for health .

“Taking the ARPA model to the next level of evolution is what is needed for the ocean domain,“ says Nishan Degnarain, founder of the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco, chaired by Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. In setting up a Special Initiative focused on Ocean Technologies and formerly created a Ministry of Ocean Economy in Mauritius, Degnarain knows just how hard it can be to elevate ocean and maritime issues to a point where they become actionable national priorities.

The U.S. needs to get organized for maritime action, Degnarian warned. “A century ago, maritime issues were huge matters for U.S. policymakers. Today, as the Oceans jockey for attention with many, many other priorities, the governmental infrastructure tending the maritime has shrunk, fragmented and become ineffectual. A vibrant ARPA approach can fix this.”

Give the U.S. Coast Guard Administrative Control Of The Maritime ARPA

The U.S. Coast Guard is the perfect place for a Maritime Advanced Research Projects Agency. The underfunded and often-overlooked maritime Component of the Department of Homeland Security is at the center of American maritime strategy, economic policy, technology and marine regulation. A unique agency, the military service straddles the civil-military divide, so it can easily mediate between competing DARPA defense-oriented projects and overlapping, more civil-and-security oriented MARPA interests. Outside of military support, the Coast Guard’s 10 other statutory missions are enormously broad and force the maritime service to understand the myriad of technological, regulatory and institutional challenges facing America’s maritime. To stay relevant, the Service monitors maritime technological trends and is in a constant race to get ahead of them.

MARPA offers the Coast Guard an ideal tool to speed ahead “all of government” approaches to the maritime. For years, the Coast Guard has been the “instigating” coordinator for a range of innovative maritime strategies–strategies that have been, in time, proven out and adopted by the rest of the federal government. Everyone has followed the Coast Guard’s lead in the Arctic, affirmed the Coast Guard’s focus on the maintenance of rules-based order in the maritime, and, today, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is the hot new DC topic. All these issues got their start in the Coast Guard’s policy shop.

An “Advanced Research Projects Agency” approach is only successful with the types of collaborations the Coast Guard already depends upon. Long inured to low budgets, and often in the center of complex regulatory challenges, the Coast Guard is far more receptive to collaboration than much of the Federal Government. To make the Coast Guard’s influence and slim budget stretch farther, the Coast Guard routinely reaches out to all kinds of public and private partners, and it is the great conciliator when regulation imposes change on their stressed maritime partners. MARPA offers a natural means to exploit the Coast Guard’s collaborative DNA.

A MARPA only works if it is trusted, and the Coast Guard is one of the most highly regarded, in demand Federal partners both inside and outside the U.S.

In short, the Coast Guard has the chops, gravitas, and trust to host MARPA. With MARPA as a mission, the Coast Guard will be the designated home for America’s maritime strategies, charged with prioritizing national investments and then helping competing agencies to coordinate.

The U.S. Coast Guard is a perfect foundation to build a future maritime-focused agency that unites the diverse maritime authorities, powers and interests that are, at present, locked away in the back corridors of many Federal agencies.

But that is a longer goal. With a MARPA advancing a strategic Blue Economy roadmap and the Coast Guard providing the organizational framework to advance it, the U.S. could once more push itself into a leadership position in the maritime, addressing risks to food security, climate change, economic security, and national security in the maritime, while at the same time generating thousands of new maritime jobs and revitalizing parts of the country that had been historically neglected.

Stakes are high. With America’s transportation infrastructure set to get almost a trillion dollars in investment from the Infrastructure Act, America is obligated to do everything possible to employ it in a prudent fashion, doing the right things for climate, supply chains, jobs, and all the other pieces that go into economic and national security. A vibrant MARPA can help validate, organize, prioritize and execute America’s maritime investments so they offer both maximal strategic value and the highest likelihood of success. We dare not waste this once-in a generation investment in America’s maritime and the Blue Economy.

The time for a Maritime ARPA is now.


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