We Must Build More Navy Ships

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

Our fleet is shrinking to dangerously low levels, weakening our defense & shipbuilding industry

In the first days of the war on terrorism, the U.S. Navy amassed 50 ships in international waters in the Arabian Sea, 500 miles south of land-locked Afghanistan. From that distance, they were able to launch missiles and send jet fighters on sorties into the interior of Afghanistan 500 hundred miles away.

Without Navy ships to provide mobile bases, the U.S. could not have waged the war in Afghanistan, because we did not have access to land bases in neighboring countries. Navy ships enable our military forces to engage our enemies wherever we find them.

Without a Navy, we would have to rely on the cooperation of foreign governments to wage every defense initiative. That is why Cynthia Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association, told this year's LEAP conference, "Homeland security begins with naval forces."

Yet our Navy fleet is shrinking, even as the war on terrorism grows. We are not building new ships to replace those that are getting old and must be retired. In 1987, the U.S. Navy had 594 ships. Now we are down to 314, the smallest fleet since before World War I.

President Bush's 2003 budget will shrink our fleet even further. He is asking for only $6.1 billion to buy U.S. Navy ships, significantly less than the $6.5 billion he requested in 2002, and a whopping $5 billion less than Clinton's request his last year in office.

Bush's reductions suggest a disturbing trend, both for national safety and for our shipbuilding industry.

The Department of Defense Joint Chiefs of Staff have told Congress we need 360 ships in order to meet all our obligations around the world. To maintain a fleet that size, we need to buy 12 ships a year. Bush's request will buy only five ships, a rate that puts us in line for a 180-ship fleet -- half what the Joint Chiefs of Staff say we need.

Even before September 11, the U.S. Navy was complaining that their ships were spread too thin around the world. Modern warships employ sophisticated technology and can do far more than similar ships in the past. But no matter how evolved their technology, no ship can be in two places at one time.

When it comes to ships, numbers do count. And when it comes to budgeting for those new ships, timing is critical.

Ships require four to eight years to build. If you want a new aircraft carrier by 2010, you need to already be working on it. Bush's failure to buy new ships will leave our Navy with a severe shortage that will not fully show itself until long after he leaves office.

Bush seems to have a knack for creating problems and leaving them for someone else to solve. Texas is still cleaning up after him, and the enormous tax cut for the wealthy he passed last year will create its largest budget deficits beginning in 2008, just in time for him to pass the problem along to the next president.

But thousands of shipyard Boilermakers can't wait eight years. The U.S. Navy and the American shipbuilding industry are intimately and intricately linked. We can't have a U.S. Navy without a U.S. shipbuilding industry, and we can't have a shipbuilding industry without a Navy.

Shipbuilding relies on a large, highly skilled workforce with specific experience building ships. We need to keep those shipbuilders working so they don't lose their skills or move into other industries. Most U.S. shipyards rely on government business to supplement their commercial business.

Commercial shipbuilding has been in decline for 20 years. In 1981, there were 22 shipyards constructing large oceangoing ships for the U.S. government, the commercial market, or both. That number has dropped to only six.

Shipbuilding requires a broad base of support industries. The supplier base includes over 9,000 companies in 47 states. Each of these vendors also has multiple suppliers throughout the United States.

The shrinking shipbuilding industry has hurt this supplier base. In some cases, there are only one or two companies left that make critical components. If we do not keep our shipbuilding industry strong, those suppliers may soon be out of business, and we will have to purchase these components overseas, a security nightmare.

The federal government holds the keys to keeping our domestic shipbuilding industry alive. Making sure that the budget includes funding for a full 360-ship Navy is the first step, but steps that encourage companies to buy ships from U.S. shipyards are just as important.

In order to ensure that the U.S. has a viable shipbuilding industry with which to build Navy ships, Congress and the president should

  • Support existing U.S. laws that require certain ships be built in the U.S., specifically the Jones Act, the Passenger Vessel Services Act, and Section 615 of the Merchant Marine Act
  • Support phasing out of single hull tankers as provided for in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990
  • Budget a minimum of $50 million annually for the Title XI Ship Loan Guarantee Program so U.S. shipbuilders can get the loans necessary to build ships.

None of these recommendations requires a change to existing U.S. law. Rather, they affirm laws already on the books. And none of them is expensive.

Title XI guarantees are only paid if a shipbuilder defaults on a loan, an unlikely occurrence. Ship operators participating in the program pay fees that cover much of the program's expense. Since Title XI was revived in 1993, these companies have paid $160 million into the U.S. Treasury in Title XI fees.

Enforcing these laws will strengthen our shipbuilding industry, and maintaining the size of the U.S. Navy fleet will strengthen our national defense.

To ensure our Navy fleet stays at its optimal level, Congress and the president should

  • Provide funds to purchase 14 ships per year so we can rebuild our Navy fleet to 360 ships
  • Support current laws requiring all U.S. Navy ships to be built in the U.S.
  • Limit military leases of foreign-built ships to no more than 18 months, with the goal of eliminating them altogether.

Obviously, Bush's budget request of $6.1 billion will not buy 14 ships. We need more like $17 billion.

If anyone suggests we can't afford that much, point out to them that tax breaks for corporations will cost the government about $171 billion over the next two years.

If we can find a way to give Microsoft $22 billion in tax breaks, we can find a way to build enough ships to keep our nation secure.