- - Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Our nation’s southern flank is at a particular security risk by virtue of the absence of any credible U.S. naval presence to detect and counter threats in that region. Indeed, the adage that “virtual presence is actual absence” rings particularly true for the Gulf of Mexico, as the Navy wrestles with how best to first satisfy increasing demands for presence in other parts of the world, particularly the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and now Asia.

During the U.S. Senate’s consideration of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s recommendations, I strongly opposed the closure of Naval Station Pascagoula — one of very few Gulf of Mexico bases — because it would leave unprotected 60 percent of our nation’s shipping and most of our busiest ports. It would also put at risk thousands of oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico which, at that time, produced 90 percent of our nation’s refinable oil and 95 percent of our natural gas.

I also highlighted the prospective risk to our Gulf Coast states, which hosted (as they do today) one of the most densely packed assortment of military bases and defense industrial infrastructure of any region in our country. These include Air Force and Navy flight training, missile defense, military shipbuilding, Defense Department supercomputing, Army Corps of Engineers waterways and resource management, naval oceanography, naval research, naval special warfare and Seabee construction battalions.

Unfortunately, the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission closed Naval Station Pascagoula, and today’s Navy simply doesn’t have enough ships to provide homeland defense in the Gulf of Mexico while also satisfying growing needs around the globe. To make matters worse, the looming threat of budget sequestration could force the Navy to cut even more ships, thus jeopardizing the viability of the defense industrial base.

Reconciling the need for more military ships to protect the vulnerable underbelly of our nation with the realities of today’s budget environment is daunting, but not unachievable. Affordability of new ships remains the key. One of the most effective ways to make Navy ships more affordable is to leverage hot supplier and production lines by building variants of ships that are already under construction. Coupling this approach with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert’s recent emphasis on payloads over host platforms, the Navy could quickly and affordably produce survivable warship variants that inherently feature sufficient space, power and cooling to host a large range of future payloads.

Of course, the most well-conceived and funded ship program is a fool’s errand if there is no domestic industrial base to supply parts or build the ships. Unfortunately, the U.S. industrial base has rapidly atrophied over the past two decades as the purchase rate of capital warships has significantly declined and winner-take-all competitions have driven suppliers from the marketplace.

The United Kingdom learned too late that competition should not always be the default option, particularly when a robust industrial base no longer exists. We are well advised to heed the industrial base lessons from our close ally across the pond, to ensure that we always have the capability within our shores to design and build the warships that can carry our flag in peace and protect and defend our freedom from the Gulf of Mexico to the far reaches of the globe.

Trent Lott, former Senate Majority Leader and Mississippi Republican, is senior counsel at The Breaux Lott Leadership Group. He has represented shipping and national defense issues in his role as a lobbyist.