Sen. Collins Sounds Alarms About Weakening U.S. Shipbuilding Industry
ARLINGTON, Va. - The current pace of Navy shipbuilding could weaken a fragile industrial base while the service's focus on smaller platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship could undermine national security, says a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, told the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium Jan. 11 that she is concerned about a decline in the Navy's surface combatant fleet.
“At its worst, the cruiser-destroyer force will be . . . 25 percent below the required number, making this shortfall the largest and longest shortfall of any class of ships. If this administration is committed to maintaining high-end combat capability, this shortfall must be significantly mitigated, or better yet, eliminated in the future plans.”
She questioned whether building an average of one-and-a-half destroyers per year would be enough to preserve the skills and jobs at shipyards such as Bath Iron Works in her state of Maine. That procurement rate also could fail to stimulate competition between shipyards, she said.
“Our fleet begins in our nation's public and private shipyards,” Collins said. “If we lose the skills at our shipyards or if they begin to atrophy because of insufficient work, there is no guarantee that we can reestablish them quickly enough when they are needed the most.”
Navy officials years ago set a goal of having a 313-ship fleet. The numbers of ships in each class have been shuffled since then. One revised benchmark of having 94 large surface combatants recognizes the growing need for ships able to perform a variety of missions such as ballistic missile defense, open ocean anti-submarine warfare and strike warfare, Collins said.
“The longer Congress has to wait for a plan to address the gap, the more questions will be asked about validity of the 94 ship requirement,” she said. “If 94 ships is the minimum, how many ships do we have to be short of that goal before someone in the Navy or at the Pentagon sounds the alarm that the risk for our country’s security has reached a red line?”
She added: “Building a large number of ships is necessary, but building a large number of ships with limited combat capability at the expense of increasing the number of ships with higher capability could well be a Pyrrhic victory.”
During a keynote address Jan. 10 at the symposium Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that the service this spring will begin a force structure assessment that takes into account the defense strategy unveiled by President Obama last week. The study will take stock of the Navy's ship inventory, now and into the future.
“In the near term, I'm very comfortable,” Greenert said. “But what do we need in the future? What does our shipbuilding plan say?”
The admiral acknowledged that the service needed to do a better job working with industry to deliver ships to the fleet. About 15 percent of the ships are late, he said.
Delays in shipbuilding and other areas of procurement are confounded by what Collins described a s a toxic partisan environment in Congress that is only getting worse. Lawmakers continue to bicker over every issue, holding hard lines on the left and right when it comes to budgetary matters.
“When we don't do our work on time, it delays new starts, it makes contracts more expensive and it throws a monkey-wrench into the entire procurement process,” Collins said.
The National Defense Authorization Act and the Defense Appropriations Bill funded shipbuilding programs to 99 percent of the president's budget request, she said. That should help reverse the trend of the 2000s when ship builds averaged a “meager six new starts per year,” she said.
Based on a Navy projection, the service should average 11 new ship construction starts over the next four years.