The Navy’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines employ cutting-edge technology and at sea represent one-third of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But at port, critics warn, those sophisticated subs are serviced and prepped for missions at government-owned shipyards, all of which can trace their origins back before World War I and are desperately in need of 21st-century upgrades.
The need could not be more critical as the Trump administration seeks to return U.S. defense policy to a focus on “great-power competition,” with China in particular. The transition means an increased reliance on the Navy, government officials and defense analysts say.
“These shipyards really are essentially elements to the national defense. Without them, the fleets would not be able to do their jobs,” said Steven Lagana, a program manager with Naval Sea Systems Command.
The Navy owns and operates four public shipyards: Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Washington, and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Hawaii. They are responsible for maintenance on all the Navy’s nuclear-powered ships — aircraft carriers and submarines.
Private shipyards handle maintenance needs for the Navy’s non-nuclear-powered ships.
The four Navy shipyards in use are widely considered to be inadequate and unable to accomplish their missions. They lack sufficient dry dock space and have facilities and equipment that are old and out of date, defense analysts said.
“Our Navy shipyards are really in crisis. They are suffering from decades of underinvestment,” said Maiya Clark, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “We just don’t have the capacity we need to service our current Navy or to meet the needs of a likely changing Navy.”
Norfolk’s Naval Shipyard is older than the country — 253 years — and was rebuilt after the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Pearl Harbor’s shipyard was established in 1908, making it the youngest of the four public shipyards still in operation.
Whatever their technological shortcomings, the shipyards are up to date as engines of local economic growth. The Pearl Harbor shipyard contributes nearly $1 billion to Hawaii’s economy every year and employs nearly 6,500 people. It is the largest employer of engineers in Hawaii.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, called the shipyard “a cornerstone of our community.” Such deep-rooted local interest is just one more factor for Pentagon planners trying to modernize the nation’s shipyard capacity.
The Navy has 80 nuclear-powered ships: 11 aircraft carriers, 51 attack submarines and 18 ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines, according to the Heritage Foundation. The Navy has struggled to maintain its existing fleet, in part because of a $4.8 billion backlog in restoration and maintenance projects at its shipyards. Watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office say it will take almost 20 years to clear the logjam.
“The average age of shipyard capital equipment now exceeds its expected useful life,” the GAO said in a 2017 report.
Consolidation and relocation have always been fraught affairs for the military.
The Navy operated 11 shipyards during World War II to meet the massive need, but it shut down three over the next three decades. With the end of the Cold War and the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) of 1990, four more were closed from 1991 to 1995 in Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mare Island and Long Beach, California.
Few new shipyard workers were hired when the Navy began scaling back its fleet in the 1990s and 2000s. With its expansion, though, the Navy now needs more skilled, specialized labor.
“Most of the experienced workers of the earlier era have retired, leaving shipyards with few experienced workers to mentor a large number of less-experienced workers,” Ms. Clark said.
Almost half of the workers at Puget Sound and 30% at Portsmouth have less than five years of experience, she said.
Meeting the need
The four shipyards are managed by Naval Sea Systems Command. Naval officials, Ms. Clark said, are well aware of the state of the shipyards and say they are committed to improving them.
To meet their shipyard obligations, the Navy in May 2018 established the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, a 20-year, $21 billion effort to modernize the four public shipyards, including critical dry dock repairs, replacements of aging and deteriorating equipment, and restoration of facilities.
Planners are proposing what amounts to a near complete reconstruction of the shipyards. The initial designs were based on methods in use a century ago, and piecemeal modernizations have resulted in a hodgepodge of additions over the years, analysts said.
“We have squeezed every bit of life out of these facilities,” Mr. Lagana said. “There is an opportunity here for us to really impact the efficiency of the shipyards.”
Rather than simply working around the edges of the problem, the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program is requiring a rethinking of how a shipyard operates in the modern age. Teams have been gathering information about each of the shipyards and are designing a model virtual shipyard. They are examining every road, every bridge and every building.
“We’ve taken all the elements and put them together. You can’t just address on and get to the end state that you want,” Mr. Lagana said. “What we’re doing here is really cutting-edge stuff.”
Each shipyard has its own challenges. The shipyard in Maine can have severe tidal swings, and changing climate patterns and a projected rise in sea levels might affect operations, he said.
In the Pacific, “there have been more and more tropical storms coming closer and closer to Hawaii,” Mr. Lagana said. Last month, the islands narrowly avoided the wrath of Hurricane Douglas, a Category 4 storm at its peak.
Once the digital model for each shipyard is complete, the designers will test different configurations and find the most efficient layout for each one.
The Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program does “an amazing job of restoring America’s shipyards,” Ms. Clark said. “They’re taking the current shipyards we have and making them the best they can be.”
But even repairing and replacing outdated buildings and equipment at the government-owned shipyards won’t give the Navy the capacity it thinks it needs to take on China, Russia and other emerging powers, she said.
“An additional shipyard would be excellent,” she said. “But it would be difficult and costly to open a new shipyard altogether.”
Reopening one of the shipyards closed during BRAC is also a nonstarter. The former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard has been transformed into “The Navy Yard,” a large mixed-use campus that city officials hope will generate jobs.
It may be possible, Ms. Clark said, to add capacity to the four current shipyards, but that would require additional space, money and time. Another possible solution would be to allow private industry to take on some of the maintenance work at the four government shipyards.
A GAO follow-up investigation last year pressed Navy officials to generate more concrete and realistic cost estimates of the vast shipyard overhaul program. Auditors said the budget models “likely understate the costs” of the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program and could produce a backlash in Congress.
“Without high-quality estimates, agencies are at risk of experiencing cost overruns, missed deadlines, and performance shortfalls,” the GAO cautioned in November.
The government auditors and the Navy agree on one thing: Shipyard modernization is a critical need.
“The extent to which the plan fully addresses those [shipyard] deficiencies remains to be seen, as the proposed actions are complex and years away from being implemented,” the GAO said.