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There is finally good news for the American armed forces, or at least for the navy. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has sponsored a bill that has the potential to address a high priority for U.S. national security in one fell swoop: the modernization and expansion of the nation’s shipyards.

This is the aptly named Shipyard Act tabled by Senators Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), Tim Kaine (D., Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (D., NH), Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Angus King (I., Maine) and, in the House, by Representatives Rob Wittman (R., Va.) And Mike Gallagher (R., Wisc.). The bill would fund the navy’s $ 21 billion recapitalization plan for shipyards within one year, allowing the navy to authorize shipyard upgrades as capacity becomes available to carry them out and build them up. do so flexibly and therefore in the shortest possible time.

The Shipyards Act is an exceptional first step on the road to the revitalization of American maritime power. Given the urgent need for a larger navy, however, sponsors should also look to set aside additional funds on the infrastructure bill to increase navy shipbuilding accounts and purchase more ships to as shipyards develop.

Currently, the United States Navy has 297 ships. It is sized and shaped for an era that is now long gone, where the global commons were unchallenged and no competitor was positioned to take control of critical choke points in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Navy can still perform gendarmerie and shore strike missions in areas of the world where it can operate safely near shore. But it has insufficient manpower and sustainment capability, and its primary surface strike power is concentrated in ships, such as aircraft carriers, which are increasingly vulnerable in competitive environments.

Compare that with the Chinese Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN. The Office of Naval Intelligence reports that PLAN currently has a fleet of 360 vessels, most of which are modern and capable of multiple missions. This equates to a five-to-one power play advantage over the US Navy in the Western Pacific. In addition, ONI predicts that the PLAN will grow to 425 vessels by 2030. Achieving this target will not be a problem for China; it has the largest shipbuilding capacity in the world and can easily produce two dozen ships each year.

So the navy needs a lot more ships. No less than six recent reports and studies – including the Navy’s official position on a fleet of 355 vessels by 2030 – recommend a combined total of 355 to 688 manned and unmanned vessels in the fleet. The exact nature of the expansion required will depend on our maritime strategy; the evolution of technology, doctrine and tactics; the size and capabilities of the PLAN; and the contributions of our allies and security partners. That said, the Navy must at least do the following over the next decade.

First, to support the production of aircraft carriers, destroyers and attack submarines and ballistic missiles.

Second, in accordance with a growing consensus, to secure a substantial number of small surface combatants who can ensure both a forward presence in the Indo-Pacific region, to carry out the wide range of missions required in the vicinity of the littoral, and the type of distributed threat that strengthen the deterrence against Chinese aggression.

Third, to significantly improve and replace military maritime transport capacity over the next few years. No great naval power in times of conflict has succeeded without robust maritime transport and a merchant navy and convoy escort capability. During World War II, US shipyards built 6,000 ships, half of which were Liberty ships and nearly 600 were destroyer escorts. Currently, the United States does not have a convoy escort and relies for its merchant navy capability primarily on other countries that cannot be relied upon in a conflict with China.

Fourth, maintain and exploit the Navy’s current advantage in the submarine domain. Given the lack of capacity to build additional nuclear-powered ships, the Navy will need a capable and more affordable fleet of non-nuclear submarines suitable for operations in the nearshore vicinity.

Acquiring these ships will require substantial and sustained increases in shipbuilding accounts, but that is by no means the only problem. From 1975 until the end of the Cold War, nine shipyards produced an average of 19 ships per year. Today there are five major shipyards located in Brunswick, Maine; Groton, Conn .; Pascagoula, Miss.; Norfolk, Virginia and San Diego, as well as two small yards in Marinette, Wisc., And Mobile, Ala. enough to meet needs over the next decade and beyond, especially as the PLAN will, during the same period, be pressed to expand the advantage it currently possesses.

This is why the Shipyards Act is such a vital step. The Navy needs increased industrial capacity as soon as possible, both to reduce the current maintenance backlog and to fund the additional expansion that will be needed to start producing more than 20 ships per year instead of eight or more. ten.

The only big loophole in the Shipyards Act is that it does not yet contain a reserve fund to purchase additional ships as industrial capacity increases. The Navy needs more and better shipyards because it needs more ships, and current budgets are insufficient even to support the current fleet, let alone finance expansion during this decade and beyond. Additionally, if Congress is to have private industry participate with its own dollars in the Navy shipyard program, it must make it clear that there will be business for the industrial base as new capabilities are brought in. service.

The good news is that many of the additional ships needed – frigates, corvettes, patrol boats, sea transport ships, and light amphibious warships – will be smaller and cheaper than most ships in the current inventory. . In addition, these ships can be built in smaller yards, which means that while Congress makes it clear that it will buy them in substantial numbers, smaller, commercial-only yards may well invest in the ability to produce. for the navy.

Proponents of the Shipbuilding Act should be sure to include funding for solid technical training for machinists, electricians, non-destructive testing personnel and welders. Capital improvements are meaningless in the absence of a highly skilled workforce. Navy-focused training programs exist – and need to be replicated elsewhere.

In short, the Shipyards Act, if passed in its current form, would be a solid extra kick in a game where the home side have so far been all but ruled out. But it would be a sure hit if its sponsors could include funds to, say, buy two dozen frigates in addition to existing shipbuilding accounts. We’re going to need it.

It’s not as if anyone can oppose such a proposal on the grounds that it is unaffordable – not after Congress has spent $ 4 trillion in the past two years on pandemic relief and economic recovery.

The fact that the administration did not include shipbuilding in its own infrastructure bill shows that Biden’s team does not understand the vital link between defense and diplomacy. Their policy towards China has started well, but without sufficient power on the ground, or in this case on the seas, Beijing can and will ignore the reputational damage that diplomacy can inflict. The protests around the world have not stopped China from occupying Hong Kong in violation of its international obligations.

There is a lot of talk in Washington about the danger of China invading Taiwan. Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), recently told Congress that “the threat is obvious. . . in the next six years. He is right to be concerned, but no one should be surprised at the growing risk.

The balance of hard power in the Western Pacific has been changing for a number of years. The implications of this are obvious. Unless deterrence is stepped up – and this means, above all, a stronger US naval presence in INDOPACOM – it is only a matter of time before Beijing attempts to use force to stifle democracy in Taiwan. .

It would be a disaster for America’s vital national interests in the region. The Shipyards Act, if passed, will be the first signal in a long time that Congress is really serious about preventing it.

Jim Talent, as a former US senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower subcommittee. He is currently Chairman of the National Leadership Council of the Reagan Institute. Lindsey Neas, a former army armor officer, served for 15 years as a defense aide for several members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees.

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