The uncertain future Pentagon officials have charted for the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet unfortunately provides no clear direction for the defense industrial base that builds and supplies it. The Defense Department’s decision to tie carriers, including the fate of the USS George Washington, to future budgets leaves them questioning how they should proceed to prepare inventory, allocate resources and hire skilled workers for new construction and maintenance of aircraft carriers — all actions that must occur well in advance of the actual start of work.
Manufacturers are facing long-term effects from delays and ambiguity in construction plans for new aircraft carriers, and the maintenance of existing ones, which increases the cost and viability of the carrier program. These delays disrupt plans and the allocation of resources for thousands of large and small businesses, threatening an already-fragile industrial base.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month that DOD next year may pull the USS George Washington from service if sequestration budget restraints continue. Inactivating that ship and cancelling its scheduled 44-month maintenance and modernization period eliminates a carrier halfway through its 50-year service life, denying a significant capability to the nation.
As businessmen, we find it hard to understand why our country would give up 10 percent of our aircraft carrier force in an effort to save less than 1 percent of the defense budget. We also do not understand why the nation would put more than 600 companies in 39 states that will provide parts and services for the USS George Washington’s overhaul at risk by eliminating planned work and expected revenue.
The United States’ ability to maintain a powerful fleet of aircraft carriers to respond in times of crisis depends on a robust, skilled industrial base with the capacity to build and maintain these complex ships. Suppliers hire and train skilled craftsmen, make investments in capital, technology and inventory, and build detailed business plans based on long-range construction and maintenance schedules. Like a carrier’s crew, a skilled labor force requires continuous training to maintain technological superiority, efficiency and effectiveness. Take one example of the significant investments that suppliers must make in highly-trained computer numerical control, or CNC operators. These skilled workers are employed in manufacturing facilities to operate high-capital machines to accurately and efficiently produce specialized, precision metal parts for aircraft carriers. Without aircraft carrier work, companies will have no incentive to make the significant investment in these workers, their unique skills or the specialized equipment that they operate. This critical industrial-base skill will be lost, and if work resumes, delays and increased costs will result as companies attempt to find, rehire or retrain new workers.
As we have seen in many other countries, when uncertainty creeps into shipbuilding, companies leave the industrial base, and irreplaceable technologies and skills critical to shipbuilding are lost. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned last year, “The last damn thing we need if we face a crisis is to somehow contract out that responsibility to another country. So we have to maintain the core industrial base that we need. The skills are essential to our ability to maintain a strong national defense.”
USS Enterprise was kept combat-ready for more than 50 years, from its first deployment during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 until its final deployment in support of operations in Afghanistan in 2012, by the products and services produced by unique and vital industrial bases. As new technologies were developed to upgrade existing ships and build the most advanced Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, more than 2,000 small, midsized and large businesses from 43 states invested to develop new products and learn new skills.
Building new carriers every five years and undertaking maintenance on a regular schedule preserves the fleet at its required operational level of 11 carriers and keeps the industrial base viable and strong. It also ensures that the industrial base can continue to guarantee that the U.S. Navy and taxpayers receive the best return on their 50-year investment in these powerful ships, from construction to maintenance to modernization.
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, last year, said, “[W]herever you live across the country, Americans benefit from opportunities generated by the shipbuilding and repair industry.” We must make it a priority to invest in the construction of the next-generation Gerald R. Ford-class of carriers and continued regular maintenance of Nimitz-class carriers like the USS George Washington. Predictable and stable work for the aircraft carrier industrial base will ensure that it remains a viable force for the future and sustain its capability to keep the Navy strong and aircraft carriers ready to respond anywhere in the world during times of crisis.
Rick Giannini is president and CEO of Milwaukee Valve Company. He serves as chairman of the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition, or ACIBC. Darrell Grow is chief operating officer of AMMCON and serves as the coalition’s vice chairman.