- - Thursday, January 23, 2014

America’s ongoing financial woes offer our leaders a prime opportunity to reconsider the long-term investments for our enduring national security needs.

Intense fiscal pressure could forebode a grim future for America’s defense capacities. Spending cuts have already docked Navy ships, grounded Air Force squadrons and stalled military repairs, leaving America vulnerable to new overseas security threats and ill-equipped to assist friendly nations.

In this era of government belt-tightening, our military leaders must invest in the most cost-effective strategies and technologies — and in the industrial base that turns them out. Doing so will keep America's military — and especially its Navy — ready for the security challenges of the 21st century without breaking the bank.

Nowhere are those security challenges more apparent than in the Asia-Pacific region. The area is home to five of our seven treaty allies. More than 90 percent of trade by volume and a majority of energy supplies travel through the region by sea. Not coincidentally, China and other regional states have sharply increased investments in their military capabilities, which has raised security concerns. Accordingly, American officials have begun a strategic rebalancing of forces that will shift 60 percent of naval power to the Pacific by 2020.

Maintaining a naval presence will also be increasingly important for addressing threats in areas where U.S. leaders may determine deploying large land-based ground and air forces to be expensive and risky.

Preparing the Navy for these new challenges is essential for America’s future national security — and can be accomplished cost-effectively.

How? For starters, by investing in ships that provide the most economic and strategic value. Our nuclear-powered strategic assets are one example. America’s aircraft carriers, attack submarines and future ballistic-missile submarines provide invaluable presence and surveillance, while delivering enormous firepower.

Amphibious-assault ships are another highly effective and cost-efficient option. These flexible and agile ships not only support joint commands as flagships in specific regions, but also enable peacetime operations. They provide robust floating bases equipped with supplies for crises response, such as anti-piracy patrol, search and rescue, civilian evacuation, and humanitarian and disaster-relief operations.

The Navy is hoping to develop a new class of these ships — called LX(R) — that is even more cost-effective.

To achieve that ambitious goal, the Navy should incorporate existing designs into future ships. The hull from the current LPD 17 class, for example, could serve as the foundation for the next generation of amphibious transports.

This would reduce costs, risks and the time needed from the past practice of designing and building a first-in-class ship. Adapting common equipment and infrastructure also cuts down production and maintenance expenses. It also trims training costs and timelines, as sailors and Marines already have the requisite knowledge to operate the new vessels.

By utilizing the existing vendor base and manufacturing lines, the Navy could save several hundred million dollars on construction of the lead LX(R) ship.

On the other hand, freezing production could have serious economic implications.

The armed forces constitute a significant source of demand for America’s robust shipbuilding and repair industry. In 2011, the sector directly supported more than 107,000 jobs and generated $9.8 billion in economic output.

Those figures don’t include our military’s vital and extensive supply chain. Indeed, more than 2,000 domestic businesses contribute parts, services and support to the production of aircraft carriers alone. Purchase orders with these vendors support local economies in 330 congressional districts. Meanwhile, the LPD 17 program employs more than 10,000 shipbuilders and spends as much as $175 million annually in the 38 supplier states.

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