The old merchant fleet, she ain't what she used to be. . . .

That's bothering US Energy Secretary James B. Edwards. He says the US merchant marine is ''the weakest link in our national security today.'' The White House is trying to keep the merchant fleet afloat. One plan: Shipowners should have more flexibility about having repairs done in foreign shipyards, where costs may be lower. Unions also call for revitalizing the fleet - with more vessels and policies that would require US and foreign shippers to move larger percentages of cargoes to and from the US on American flag vessels.

Unions contend that administration proposals are inadequate and could further reduce US shipbuilding.

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