There is good news at last for America’s armed forces, or at least for the Navy. A bipartisan group of legislators has sponsored a bill that has the potential to address at one stroke a first-order priority for American national security: upgrading and expanding the nation’s shipyards.
It’s the appropriately named Shipyard Act, filed by Senators Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), Tim Kaine (D., Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), 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 in one year the Navy’s $21 billion recapitalization plan for shipyards, enabling the Navy to authorize shipyard improvements as capacity became available to make them and to do so with flexibility and therefore in the shortest possible time.
The Shipyards Act is an outstanding first step on the path to revitalizing America’s sea power. Given the pressing need for a bigger Navy, however, the sponsors should also seek to set aside additional money from the proposed infrastructure bill to increase the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts and buy more vessels as the shipyards expand.
Currently, the United States Navy has 297 ships. It is sized and shaped for an era that is now long passed, when the global commons were uncontested and there were no peer competitors positioning themselves to seize control of critical choke points across the Indo-Pacific region.
The Navy can still perform constabulary duties and littoral strike missions in areas of the world where it can safely operate close to shore. But it possesses insufficient numbers and staying capacity, and its main surface striking power is concentrated in ships, such as the aircraft carriers, that are increasingly vulnerable in competitive environments.
Contrast that with the Chinese navy — the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN. The Office of Naval Intelligence reports that the PLAN currently counts a fleet of 360 ships, most of which are modern and multi-mission-capable. This equates to a five-to-one numerical advantage over the American Navy in the western Pacific. Moreover, ONI projects that the PLAN will grow to 425 ships by 2030. Achieving that goal will not be a problem for China; it has the largest shipbuilding capacity in the world and can easily produce two dozen vessels each year.
So the Navy needs a lot more ships. No less than six recent reports and studies — including the Navy’s formal position of a 355-ship fleet by 2030 — recommend a combined total of between 355 and 688 manned and unmanned vessels in the fleet. The exact nature of the needed expansion will depend on our maritime strategy; the evolution of technology, doctrine, and tactics; the size and capabilities on the PLAN, and the contributions of our allies and security partners. That said, the Navy needs to do at least the following over the next decade.
First, sustain production of aircraft carriers, destroyers, and both attack and ballistic-missile submarines .
Second, in keeping with a growing consensus, ensure a substantial number of smaller surface combatants that can provide both forward presence across the Indo-Pacific region, to conduct the wide array of missions necessary in littoral environs, and the kind of distributed threat that will strengthen deterrence against Chinese aggression.
Third, upgrade and replace military sealift capacity substantially over the next several years. No great naval power in time of conflict has succeeded without a robust sealift and merchant-marine and convoy-escort capability. During World War II, U.S. shipyards built 6,000 vessels, one half of which were Liberty ships, and almost 600 of which were destroyer escorts. Currently the United States has no convoy escorts and relies for its merchant-marine capacity mostly on other countries that cannot be counted on in the event of a conflict with China.
Fourth, sustain and exploit the Navy’s current…