American naval shipbuilders were once the pride of the nation and the envy of the world. During the last 75 years, the nation’s shipbuilding industrial base transformed a relatively small U.S. Navy into the greatest sea power the world has ever known, during and after World War II.
Even with today’s declining number of ships, that dominance has been maintained with our advanced technology and the ingenuity of the American sailor and worker. There is now a great debate about the future structure of the U.S. Navy. The outcome could well decide whether the last remaining significant heavy shipbuilding capability in the United States can survive.
The debate has to do with what kind of naval surface ships the country needs to build for the future. Capable surface combatants are key because they are the backbone and most visible assets for safeguarding U.S. national security interests and ensuring freedom of the seas and economic stability. U.S. strategy has been to forward-deploy our naval forces as one of the key elements in maintaining the proper level of deterrence and stability, in order to meet our global responsibilities. Should deterrence fail, we have had the recognized naval combat power to prevail.
The key has always been providing the next generation of warships with overmatching combat power and advanced technology to maintain U.S. dominance at sea.
The problem today is that faced with declining numbers of naval ships, an uncertain threat environment and replacement costs spiraling out of control, Navy leadership has decided to abandon or delay procuring the next generation of surface combatants in the name of “affordability.” The chief of naval operations (CNO) recently announced a decision to truncate the purchase of the next generation Zumwalt DDG-1000 class to only two ships from originally 31 planned.
Instead of moving ahead with this state-of-the-art stealthy warship with unsurpassed situational awareness and armed to provide long-range missile and gunfire support to forces ashore, the CNO chose to restart production of the Arleigh Burke class DDG-51 destroyers with their 30-year-old technology. The Navy decision to reverse course, delivered pre-emptively to a largely unconvinced Congress as well as contractors, without the benefit of supporting analysis, has left the Navy’s future shipbuilding plans in troubled waters. If the U.S. Navy is ever to have a boost phase anti-ballistic missile intercept capability, then the technology of the DDG-1000 is essential.
Naval shipbuilders have fallen on hard times as orders for naval surface combatants have significantly declined. Only two major shipyards remain that produce surface combatants. The shipbuilding executives, who should be making the case, have been AWOL. Shipbuilders have an obligation, in coordination with the Navy, to bring their insight and expertise to the task of choosing the best path forward. The taxpayers also have an abiding interest in the outcome since the Navy is their first line of defense and at the end of the day, they pay the bill.
Of all the stakeholders in this debate, only the shipbuilders face the prospects of extinction if the wrong program is chosen. The skills needed to build a commercial ship do not translate into building a naval combat ship. Constructing a naval combat ship requires technical disciplines and expertise in the work force that takes years to develop. The capital costs involved in building naval combatant ships that last at least 30 years requires a solid analytical underpinning to support the required essential investments. If the United States is to remain the leading world power, our predominate control of the sea is critical.
Therefore, a wrong decision on future naval surface combatants or one with unforeseen future consequences for the shipyards could ultimately put them in a further reduced status.
Inexplicably, the executives of the last remaining U.S. naval shipyards have chosen to sit this one out. They have not joined in the debate, have issued gag orders to their employees and have not helped either competing defense contractors or the Navy to make their respective case. Could it be that the corporate leaders have muzzled their shipyard executives?
In July 2008, Congress demanded, but has not yet received, any compelling Navy analysis to support the CNO’s decision to curtail DDG-1000 and restart DDG-51 production. After seven months of noncompliance with the congressional mandate, one can only conclude that no substantive internal Navy analysis of cost comparisons and producibility studies exists.
So why haven’t the shipbuilders provided such analysis to the Navy to present to Congress? Almost 50 states have a stake in building naval ships. Moreover, why have there been no complaints or caveats from the shipyards on the potential downsides of creating gaps in their workload, arresting development of their work force and perpetuating obsolescent technology? Surely, an industrial enterprise with the size and complexity to build modern warships has a long-term business model with appropriate cost comparisons, projections of future work and predictions of their future competitiveness and profitability.
Could it be that the shipbuilders are so desperate for any and all Navy work that they are relinquishing control of their futures solely to the vicissitudes of the green shade budgeters?
American shipbuilders have not always chosen to sit on the sidelines. From a standing start in the midst of the Great Depression, the shipbuilding industry led the recovery from years of economic stagnation by putting America back to work. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s naval expansion program had set the nation on the path of building a Navy second to none, but it was the task of America’s shipyards to deliver the goods.
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.