The SHIPYARD Act is table stakes in the competition with China

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Last month a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the SHIPYARD Act, a proposal to spend $25 billion upgrading the government shipyards, private repair docks and construction facilities that build and maintain the U.S. Navy’s fleet. In a disappointing omission, the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan does not address the nation’s aging maritime industrial base. The SHIPYARD Act could rectify this oversight, but it does not go far enough.

The SHIPYARD Act’s proposed spending is arguably table stakes in the competition with China, which the administration says is one of the three main drivers behind the American Jobs Plan. The Navy estimated its public shipyards have a $21 billion backlog of deferred repairs and modernization, which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) considers a significant underestimate. Add to that capacity constraints in the submarine industrial base and private shipyard dry dock shortages, and $25 billion begins to look like the minimum needed to get the most out of the nation’s investment in ships and submarines.

The proposed bill also overlooks perhaps the most important and constrained resource in America’s shipbuilding and repair base — its skilled craftspeople and technicians. Multiple government and outside assessments during the past five years highlighted the need for workers at ship construction and repair yards to replace waves of retiring Cold War-era personnel. Exacerbating the shortfalls, new employees who make up about a third of shipyard workforces are significantly less productive than their predecessors.

The American Jobs Plan proposes initiatives to train workers for new trades, help underserved communities, and improve caregiving. Growing the number of qualified employees for public and private shipyards should be an element of these programs, which would allow new or displaced workers to move into jobs with middle-class wages, benefits and transferable skills. The Navy’s major shipbuilders operate apprenticeship programs, but they cannot keep up with demand. And with their unpredictable workload and lower profit margins, private ship repair yards cannot afford the luxury of paying workers to learn their trades.

A functioning maritime industrial base is essential for the United States to effectively compete with China. Every day, China’s maritime militia, coast guard and navy harass, hinder and bully American allies on the high seas in a campaign of intimidation designed to prevent its rivals from exercising control over their own exclusive economic zones and maritime territory. Exploiting the resulting confusion and lack of law enforcement, China’s fishing and oil and gas industries extract resources until someone intervenes, as the USS Gabrielle Giffords did on behalf of Malaysia last year.

U.S. allies and partners try to protect their territory, but they are ill-equipped to counter China’s combined military and civilian maritime forces. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are often unable to spare ships to help. If the American Jobs Plan is going to help create a greener future, preventing rapacious and illegal Chinese resource extraction should be one of its goals.

A main contributor to the Navy and Coast Guard being unable to sustain an overseas posture is the lack of ship repair capacity. Surface combatants that do the bulk of maritime security operations are paying the price for inadequate investment in the nation’s private ship repair yards. During the past decade, about 75 percent maintenance periods ran long on Navy surface warships, with half of those delays running into multiple months.

The lack of physical or personnel repair capacity does not cause every delay, but it exacerbates setbacks that emerge when workers discover new problems or are waiting for parts. With a limited number of docks and workers, a ship held up in maintenance cannot move to let the next one in, causing a cascade of delays for subsequent ships.  

The Chief of Naval Operations recently argued the Navy needs a 355-ship fleet, but it is not getting its money’s worth for the 290 ships it already has. For example, the average combined 6,000 extra days per year that U.S. surface combatants spend in maintenance rather than on patrol equates to another 16 ships. If all those ships are the Navy’s planned frigate, a better version of the SHIPYARD Act’s $2 billion support to private repair yards could save about $16 billion in new ship construction.

This return on investment is only one part of the SHIPYARD Act’s benefits. The centuries-old public shipyards that support the Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers are also running in some cases years behind on work for our nation’s most expensive and operational valuable platforms. Reducing their backlog will be essential to deterring aggression in the future. 

With trillions of dollars potentially in play to improve America’s competitiveness, not paying for the infrastructure that keeps our Navy and Coast Guard ships running is like buying a new SUV and never changing the oil or tires. If we want to compete with China, protect the global environment, and get the most out of our maritime investments, we need to restore the infrastructure and people our fleet depends on.

Bryan Clark is a senior fellow and Timothy A. Walton is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Tags Coast Guard Dry dock Shipyard SHIPYARD Act US Navy

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