Bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks billions for aging U.S. shipyards

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers are betting on President Biden’s current focus on infrastructure with a measure that would provide a $25 billion badly needed cash infusion for the nation’s outdated and decaying shipyards. 

A new bill announced Wednesday would fully fund the Navy’s $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) in a single year, targeting the money for the Navy’s four public shipyards in Virginia, Maine, Hawaii and Washington. It would also provide another $4 billion to upgrade commercial shipyards that build, maintain and repair the Navy’s fleet.

Proponents say the money is needed as rivals like China build up their maritime capabilities and challenge the U.S. Navy’s long dominance of the strategic waterways. 

“Congress has already taken the important step of committing to a larger Navy, but our shipyards are having trouble servicing today’s 296-ship fleet and are clearly insufficient to maintain the 355-ship or larger fleet that we need to counter China, Russia and other adversaries,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican and a lead author of the bill.

Without money earmarked for building up domestic shipyards, the Navy will be forced to “limp along” with its fleet continuing to degrade, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy captain and analyst with the Telemus Group.

“The great-power competition with China is essentially naval in character. If you’re going to meet that competition, you need a naval-based strategy,” he said.

The 2020 Shipyard Act is co-sponsored in the Senate by Democrats Tim Kaine of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Republican Susan Collins of Maine; and Maine independent Sen. Angus King. All hail from states with either a public or private shipyard.

“Our bipartisan legislation would support infrastructure improvements at shipyards across the country to help reduce maintenance backlogs, increase safety and efficiency and accommodate growth to counter China’s growing naval ambitions,” said Sen. Collins.

The Navy knows it has a problem with the nation’s antiquated and decrepit shipyards. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability determined that military readiness from 2017-2019 declined in the “sea domain.” The Navy in its response cited limited maintenance capacity and public private shipyards as the culprit.

Backers say they are “cautiously optimistic” can pick up bipartisan support in a often partisan Congress. Mr. Wicker said supporters are helped by the fact the status quo is unacceptable.

“Today, China has a significant competitive advantage over the U.S. in the sheer number and output of shipyards it can task with military construction and repair,” he said. “The few shipyards the U.S. does have are in need of maintenance and expansion to support not only our roughly 300-ship fleet today but also plans to grow the fleet. Without an accelerated path forward, the U.S. will risk sidelining more of our Navy’s largest and most powerful assets at a time when they are needed to counter threats from abroad.” 

Given China’s growing challenge, Mr. Hendrix said upgrading and repairing the nation’s shipyards is an obvious weak spot in the U.S. arsenal.

“We don’t have enough excess capacity in our shipyards now to take care of the fleet we have,” he said. “If you want to grow the fleet to 355 or 400-plus [ships], you’re going to have to have additional shipbuilding and ship repair capacity, which does not exist right now.”

He said the Navy has been “quietly pushing” the issue and is also cautiously optimistic that the Shipyard Act will succeed. 

The Navy faces “more demands, a smaller fleet and doing more with less,” added Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

The nation’s shipyards in their current state are simply unable to keep up with the workload, he said.

Ships needing repairs are “showing up late and they’re staying longer. That creates a chokepoint,” Mr. Bowman said. “They have to stay longer in maintenance because of the wear and tear associated with longer deployments.”

While the senators from the shipbuilding states might have a personal stake in seeing the measure become law, Mr. Bowman said the shipyard bill could be a rare case where both parochial and national security interests might align.

“That is a powerful and good thing that can result in a better outcome,” he said.

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