WIND WHIPS the unfinished flight deck of the USS John F. Kennedy, scaffolding swaying as workers scramble to their stations. Derek Murphy, the ship’s construction manager at Newport News Shipyard, gazes proudly at the electromagnetic aircraft-catapult running along the ship’s length, one of 23 new technologies on board. “At launch, she’ll be the most powerful warship in the world,” he says.
The vessel, the second aircraft-carrier in a new class named after President Gerald Ford, is due to be completed in 2024, after years of delays and at a cost of $11.9bn. The Kennedy is hardly the only concern for Huntington-Ingalls Industries, the shipyard’s operator. Across 550 packed acres, engineers race to assemble nuclear-powered carriers and submarines. In Washington, meanwhile, nervous planners hope that the shipyard will find room to build more.
In response to the rise of a new superpower rival, America’s shipyards are struggling to support an expanding navy. They are still suffering from the hangover of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, when plans for ships were scuttled, facilities were closed and skilled workers laid off. From a peak of 594 in 1987, America’s navy will have 306 ships by the end of this year; the Department of Defence estimates that China’s has 355 (increasingly capable) vessels. Congress is eager to allocate more funds for the navy, which aims to build a modern fleet of 355 ships by 2035. The shipyards will need help to make this a reality.
They are emerging from a long decline. In 1993, at a gathering known in defence circles as “the Last Supper”, the then defence secretary, Les Aspin, warned contractors that an era of fiscal restraint had arrived. The war on terror further distracted attention from ship production and maintenance. Budget battles between President Barack Obama and a Republican-controlled Congress resulted in spending cuts. The industry shrank. Today, Newport News Shipyard has 70% fewer suppliers than it did 30 years ago.
Since 2016 the navy has reversed course, in what the brass at Huntington-Ingalls call “the surge”. In the two decades to 2036 the yard will deliver more than double the tonnage of ships compared with the previous 20 years. But according to Chris Dougherty of the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank, America’s defence establishment remains divided on its vision for the navy. Whereas some prefer a larger fleet in order to maintain presence, without fussing too much about its composition, others fear a possible war with China, which would require prioritising submarines and auxiliary ships. A third group, worried that America may lose its technological edge, favours a focus on autonomous weapons. Lacking clear direction, shipyards have little guidance as to which ships to design.
Not exactly shipshape
An erratic approach to funding compounds the problem. “Instability in one programme creates problems in another,” says Matt Needy, vice-president for navy programmes at Newport News Shipyard. He bitterly recalls the time when the Pentagon proposed to scrap the USS George Washington in 2014 midway through its normal life cycle, only for the move to be reversed after pressure from Congress. The confusion cost the yard a year of work that had been scheduled for scrapping, resulting in lost revenue and lay-offs for workers building Virginia-class submarines. “The most important thing for us is consistency of funding,” says Mr Needy.
That consistency is essential for shipyards to make long-term investments, which can be extremely large. To improve efficiency, for example, the yard has installed a towering circular suspension system capable of holding the 300-ton hull of the stern of the Columbia-class submarine, which is as heavy as 150 Ford F-150 trucks. The system will also build the successor to the Virginia-class submarine, known as the SSN(X).
But the most urgent need is for labour. “The talent pool is so small that our hiring can hurt our suppliers,” says Mr Needy. Although Huntington-Ingalls spends $100m on training and hires thousands of people every year, the shipbuilding industry needs more.
As shipyards strain to fill orders, officials are taking only halting steps to support them. Diana Maurer of the Government Accountability Office believes the navy’s plans to refurbish the public shipyards, which conduct maintenance, are inadequate. The SHIPYARD Act, introduced in Congress in April, would dedicate $25bn to improvements but does not tackle the issue of worker training.
All the while, the demands on America’s shipyards from geopolitical competition are growing. The proposed defence budget, set out in the National Defence Authorisation Act, passed by the House of Representatives and stalled in the Senate, has allocated $24bn more than the $716bn requested by the White House, with much of the additional funds going to yet more ships. Elaine Luria, a Democratic congresswoman from Virginia and a navy veteran, is adamant that the country cannot afford to slacken the pace. “We’re easily distracted and stretched thin,” she says. “What message does that send to the Chinese?” ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “All at sea”