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One has only to read the daily papers to see that today’s reluctant shipbuilders may ultimately pay a high price for not taking a stand or entering the fray. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “hard choices” on weapons spending would be necessary when he testified before congressional defense committees on Jan. 27. In an article appearing in Foreign Affairs the same month, Mr. Gates went on to say, “The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything. The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.” That budget, absent any compelling shipbuilding analysis, most likely will not be calling for increases in the Navy budget.

The lesson to timorous shipyard executives is clear. American shipyards led the way out of bad economic times in the past and a vigorous, affordable naval shipbuilding program could make a significant impact on struggling local and national economies in the years ahead. However, successful results do not come without active participation. Settling for half a loaf may seem like a safe strategy, but ending up with only a few crumbs is the price for refusing to bring shipbuilders’ years of professional expertise and experience into the debate.

James Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.