The U.S. Navy needs to build more ships

Newton B. Jones, International President

IN THE FIRST DAYS OF THE IRAQ War, the U.S. military launched 1,700 sorties in a strategy they called “shock and awe.” News media inspired the public with stories of the high-tech weapons in use — “smart bombs,” the stealth bomber, and remotely-guided, unmanned assault aircraft. But that was a distorted picture of the war effort.

More than 500 of those initial sorties were Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from submarines. Most of the assault planes were launched from aircraft carriers. And U.S. Navy ships carried materiel and troops to the region, providing valuable support during both the attack and the occupation. Despite all our high-tech weapons and aircraft, it remains a fact that no country can successfully prosecute a war without a strong navy.

And the U.S. Navy has been shrinking for two decades.

As recently as 1987, the Navy had 594 ships. At that time, we were not at war. Since then, despite growing threats from around the globe — the Middle East, Korea, China — we have built an average of only six ships a year, while decommissioning 20.

The Navy’s fleet is now only 281 ships, less than half its size in 1987. Although there is support within the military for a larger Naval fleet, the Department of Defense (DOD) has shown little interest in building the ships key to our arsenal.

For example, numerous reports recommend a fleet of 55-75 submarines, but the Navy is building only one a year. Our submarine fleet has shrunk from 100 in 1990 to 53 today. The American Shipbuilding Association estimates that at current rates, China will have twice as many submarines as the United States in only five years.

The DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), issued on Feb. 3, calls for a return to building two submarines a year by 2012. Issued every four years, the QDR outlines DOD goals for the next 20 years.

But the QDR is only a recommendation, and their target date is still seven years away. The DOD budget for fiscal year 2006 provided just under $7 billion to build six new ships (including one submarine), the same rate as the last 18 years. And even that low figure is better than what the DOD and the Bush White House had requested; they wanted only four new ships.

Next year looks no different. On Feb. 6, President Bush sent his FY 2007 budget request to Congress. It calls for seven new ships, but that number is misleading. The DOD had already agreed to start construction on one new DDX destroyer in 2007 and one in 2008. This budget simply starts them both in 2007; it does not increase the total on order.

One roadblock to building more ships is lack of agreement on how big the U.S. Naval fleet should be. In December, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chief of Naval operations, weighed in on that question, proposing to increase the fleet from 281 to 313 by 2020.

Although Mullen’s figure is a far cry from the 600-ship Navy President Reagan promised in 1980, it would mean a significant increase in shipbuilding.

But Mullen’s plan wouldn’t begin until 2008, and any proposal he makes must first get through the DOD and the president’s office before it could be considered by Congress.

Building more Navy ships would be great news for our shipbuilding division members, especially those in Connecticut, Mississippi, Louisiana, and California, where key military ships are built. Other locals that make parts used in Navy vessels would benefit, too.

But a lot of barriers stand between the admiral’s proposal and congressional funding for new shipbuilding.

One barrier is lease extension. U.S. law requires our weapons systems, including Navy ships, to be made in the U.S.A. But it also allows the Navy to lease foreign-built ships for short periods when needed. In recent years, the DOD has circumvented the intent of these laws by including multiple 18- month options in each lease contract. These automatic extensions turn shortterm leases into long-term ones. With enough extensions, a lease becomes a de facto purchase, skirting the “Buy America” laws. While leasing makes strategic and economic sense in the short run, in the long run it becomes more expensive than buying new ships — and puts national security at risk.

An amendment to the fiscal year 2007 budget appropriations bill would limit Navy leases of foreign-built ships to two years duration. Limiting leases will encourage the Navy to purchase new ships, providing jobs for Boilermakers and spending taxpayers’ money inside the United States, rather than handing it over to foreign ship owners.

The Navy fleet’s decline has an obvious solution: build more ships. But the cost of building today’s technologically-advanced ships is great; finding that money in a budget already generating record deficits will not be easy.

During hearings to confirm Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter last October, Senator Jim Talent (R-MO) made a compelling economic argument for building more ships. While telling Winter he had an “historic” imperative to rebuild the fleet, Talent observed that the cost of going to war with an inadequate fleet is “a whole lot worse for the budget than spending the amounts now to get what the Navy needs.”

Now if only we can get the Navy, the DOD, Congress, and President Bush to recognize — as Senator Talent does — the true cost of NOT building ships.