Key point: America needs a better industrial and shipyard capacity if it is to win another major war.
The U.S. naval industrial base is in bad shape. There are too few shipyards and they work too slowly to quickly expand the fleet. In wartime, they would struggle to repair battle-damaged ships.
That’s the dire conclusion that William Hawkins, a former Congressional researcher, reached when he studied government shipbuilding reports. Hawkins explained his alarm in an article in the August 2019 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings.
Hawkins pored through two recent U.S. Navy reports to Congress. Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020 and Long-Range Plan for Maintenance and Modernization of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020.
“Both reports present an industrial base at the limit of its capacity, at best,” Hawkins wrote. Yards have barely enough capacity to grow the fleet to its goal of 355 front-line ships, up from around 290 currently in service.
“Shipbuilders seem confident they can produce warships on the schedule the Navy has drawn up, but that is largely because the pace of construction is no better than moderate,” Hawkins pointed out. “The 355-ship target will not be reached until 2034; four presidential and seven Congressional elections will pass before then, presenting risks to continuity.”
The Navy owns four shipyards. Four private firms between them own another seven yards. Eleven yards in total for a fleet that could grow to 355 ships, not counting scores of auxiliaries as well as Coast Guard vessels.
“In the face of the construction demands, capacity to repair battle damage resulting from combat in a distant theater such as the South China Sea seems to be lacking,” Hawkins wrote. “The Maintenance and Modernization report calls for expanding beyond the current 21 dry docks on the U.S. Pacific coast merely to reduce current backlogs in the normal routine. When something off schedule occurs, extraordinary measures have to be taken.”