The US Needs a New Public Shipyard
Warships are waiting for repairs at America's creaky government drydocks. And no, privatization isn’t the answer.
The U.S. Navy’s four public shipyards are overwhelmed. Budget documents show that their workload exceeds their capacity by 117 to 153 percent — that is, there’s too much to get done and too few dry docks to do it. And despite reams of studies detailing the Navy’s maintenance challenges, official Washington is overlooking the obvious solution: open a new national shipyard.
The stakes are high. Today, 71 nuclear-powered submarines and 11 aircraft carriers depend upon maintenance at old, creaky public shipyards in Maine, Virginia, Hawaii, and Washington State. These taxpayer-owned yards are essentially living historical sites, centuries-old facilities that struggle to accommodate cutting-edge naval platforms. Norfolk Naval Shipyard, founded by the British in 1767, will need a refit to maintain new Ford-class aircraft carriers. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard began operations in 1800, and it has been challenged to accommodate the ever-growing fleet of Virginia-class submarines, the future mainstay of America’s attack sub force. Add in the constant threat of sequestration and budget cuts, and these vital pieces of U.S. industrial history — the last remnants of a proud 12-national-shipyard empire — are stretched to the breaking point.
Leadership is lacking. Rather than employing the looming threat of maritime competition to demand better maintenance facilities and sufficient funding, somnolent Navy leaders have proposed a decades-long, $21 billion plan to fix obsolete dry docks, recapitalize aged equipment and optimize facilities. Given the immediate threat of a great-power challenge at sea, the timeline is unrealistic. And even with a leisurely 20-year schedule, no shipyard manager on earth could modernize America’s old and oversubscribed shipyards without risking major disruption.
There is an alternative: add a national shipyard. This will make the recapitalization of the existing public yards far easier and, ultimately, far less costly to the taxpayer.
The shipbuilding industry hates this idea. Over the decades, company executives and their lobbyists have been enormously successful in pushing Congress to eliminate their competition by defunding taxpayer-owned ship maintenance and repair facilities. At the height of the Cold War in 1984, the Navy had 10 commissioned destroyer tenders, 13 submarine tenders, five big repair ships and 17 floating dry docks kept busy maintaining and fixing naval vessels. throughout in the world. In 1988, the Navy could claim immediate access to around 50 dry docks, marine railways and lifts. Today, only about 20 dry docks and two ancient sub-tenders remain, according to Janes and U.S. government data.
While privatization can lower costs, complete and total privatization of naval ship maintenance would add vast risk. Big-defense lobbyists won’t tell Congress, but if the last national yards go away, the Navy will lose all flexibility to address the time-sensitive readiness challenges that invariably come with increased maritime competition. The burden of bidding and contracting adds years of delay and expense to even simple ship alterations. And if defense contractors are allowed to maintain the ships they build, America risks incentivizing the production of feeble vessels that are, to bend a shipbuilding adage, “so nice, they’ll be rebuilt twice” in the repair yard.
Naval historians know this. Hundreds of years of waterfront experience show that taxpayer-owned yards aren’t perfect, but they do free navies to quickly and efficiently address battle damage, fix accidents, modify game-changing platforms, and moderate private-sector price gouging.
The Navy has struggled with maintenance cuts long enough. Commissioning a new submarine-focused national shipyard can offset the abrupt and poorly justified 1996 closure of submarine maintenance centers at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California and the naval shipyard in Charleston, S.C. Few can argue today that the 1993 Base Realignment and Closure Commission accurately forecasted future submarine demand or anticipated the Navy’s substantive shift in undersea force structure.
The good news: the Navy won’t have to start entirely from scratch. Instead, it can redevelop and reopen a closed yard. Perhaps the now-vacant Long Beach Naval Shipyard, which itself was closed after World War II and re-opened to support the Korean War. Or, if the Atlantic seaboard is deemed more suitable, Baltimore’s old Sparrow’s Point Shipyard sits vacant, with a waterfront workforce ready to accommodate the high-end, complex work a nuclear naval repair yard might bring.
A new national shipyard also offers an opportunity to inaugurate new, more collaborative approaches to shipyard management. At the taxpayer-owned national laboratories, the Department of Energy employs private contractors as facility managers. If the Navy followed the national laboratory example, outsourcing yard management for a modest fee, everybody wins. Congress gets strong private-sector focus on reducing yard overhead while the Navy retains flexibility and operational control over vessels and projects. A national-shipyard approach also opens private-sector participation to innovators like Battelle Memorial Institute and other more specialized facility managers, injecting new private-sector players into shipyard maintenance in a way that puts pressure on both the Navy and naval shipbuilders to do a better job of preparing the Navy for the looming challenge of big-power competition at sea.