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America Needs to Build More (and Better) Ships
Why American military power depends on the health of its maritime industries.
When diplomacy fails, America relies on its military might to protect its citizens, allies, trade, and other interests. But America’s military power rests on economic foundations, from a strong industrial base to a skilled workforce. When America under-invests in the civilian sources of hard power, it’s less able to defend its interests and values overseas—but when America invests in these capabilities, it enhances national security and fosters economic prosperity at the same time.
In the past, policymakers and political leaders from both parties recognized this reality. There’s a long history of defense spending spilling over into the private sector: nuclear energy, of couse, has its roots in the Manhattan Project during World War II, while the internet began life as ARPANET, a Cold War-era information system developed by the Department of Defense. GPS started out as a military system before the government made it publicly available. Investing in advanced military capabilities can have many positive downstream effects for America’s economy as well as its security.
Today, however, the economic side of American security has severe weaknesses. Some of these shortcomings have been exposed as the United States has helped Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression: there are very few plants making the Javelin anti-tank missiles and HIMARS artillery systems that have proven so effective against Russian forces, for instance. But some of America’s most acute military-industrial problems are in the maritime realm, affecting the United States Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine.
America has always been a maritime nation. The importance of trade to our economy means that our national strength and prosperity have always depended on access to the sea. Likewise, in the modern era, when a geopolitical crisis arises, the first question often asked at the White House is, “Where are the carriers?”
Protecting trade and American interests abroad—which in the 21st century requires a presence in many parts of the world—requires strong Sea Services. If America is to be secure and prosperous in the 21st century, it must shore up the economic foundations of its maritime power.
America was once the world's leading shipbuilder, but beginning in the 1980s the government allowed the industry to atrophy. The Reagan administration ended federal subsidies for shipbuilding, leading to a plunge in the production of new ships. China, on the other hand, pumped $132 billion into its shipping and shipbuilding industries between 2010 and 2018. As naval expert Jerry Hendrix wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, these developments have harmed both military and civilian shipbuilding. U.S. Navy ships are twice as expensive to build as they were in 1989, while American consumers “could face the shock of no container ships arriving at all should China prohibit its large fleet from visiting U.S. ports.”
Meanwhile, the Navy has only four publicly owned shipyards where it can repair and maintain its vessels, down from eight at the end of the Cold War. While the vessels themselves—aircraft carriers, destroyers, nuclear-powered submarines, and amphibious assault ships—are the public face of maritime power, they’re helpless without the facilities and workers to keep them in good working order. What’s more, maintenance delays drive up costs and hurt the Navy’s ability to quickly respond to threats, leaving American interests around the world more vulnerable.
While many industries have struggled to find skilled workers since the COVID-19 pandemic, labor scarcities in defense-related industries should particularly worry policymakers. These manpower shortages have delayed the building and repair of ships, aircraft, and other important equipment. The Merchant Marine—whose sealift abilities are vital to moving equipment supplies across oceans to conflict zones—likewise has a shortage of mariners. While men and women in uniform can be flown by airplane to far-flung locations in Asia or Europe, some 90 percent of U.S. Army and Marine Corps equipment and supplies are moved by ship.
Addressing the military’s maritime industrial needs can strengthen both America’s economy and its security. While policymakers often view these areas separately, the connections between them are important to understand— and the federal government must see America’s maritime industry as an economic as a well as a national security priority.
Congress and the Biden administration have begun to address similar vulnerabilities in other areas. The CHIPS Act, for instance, makes $39 billion available to U.S. semiconductor manufacturers to expand production at home and secure supply chains for these critical components. Currently, much of the world's semiconductor manufacturing is concentrated in Taiwan, making it vulnerable to a Chinese invasion. As Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo noted, “many of our defense capabilities—like hypersonic weapons, drones, and satellites—depend on a supply of chips that aren’t currently produced in America.”
Policymakers should take the industrial policy logic of the CHIPS Act—public investment in industries vital to national security—and apply it to America’s maritime sector. The CHIPS Act has already led American private businesses to invest more than $200 billion in 22 states, investments that will increase domestic semiconductor manufacturing. A similar surge of public funds into shipbuilding, shipyards, worker training, and other key aspects of maritime power could prove a similar jumpstart for private investment in America’s maritime industry. As in the past, the military and civilian sides of the American economy rise and fall together.
There are several steps Congress can take to make this happen. First, they should increase the number of shipyards and other repair facilities. Defense expert Craig Hooper has argued for reopening the Navy’s Cold War-era shipyard in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, and using it to repair and maintain nuclear submarines in the Pacific; this idea deserves serious consideration. There are also other former shipyards that Congress might consider reopening, like Long Beach in California and Charleston in South Carolina. The more facilities the Navy has available to keep its ships in good working order, the more quickly it can get those ships back out to sea to protect America’s interests.
Policymakers should not limit their search for new naval facilities to the coastal states. America’s industrial heartland can also play a role in maritime security. The Bartlett Maritime Corporation has proposed building a shipyard along Lake Erie, for example, and a submarine parts repair depot in northern Ohio. While there are many issues with the former idea, the latter—flying parts from submarines to the Midwest for repair—could prove much more promising as a way to relieve pressure on America’s current facilities for fixing and maintaining vessels. It could also connect the economic revival of the Rust Belt to the need to patrol the seas and confront China.
In tandem with revived and new shipyards, Congress should ensure the military makes sealift vessels—those that transport the military’s supplies and equipment—a major construction priority. Sealift is frequently treated like shipbuilding’s black sheep, given little funding and scant attention relative to warships. Transport ships may not be as glamorous or imposing as combat vessels, but they are just as important.
Hiring, training, and retaining workers should be another priority. In 2022, Rear Admiral Bill Greene cited record levels of attrition at shipyards as a major reason the Navy could only complete work on 36 percent of its surface ships within their scheduled maintenance periods. He called the lack of skilled trade workers a “national crisis.” A major hiring and training push in the maritime industry could be part of a nationwide push for workforce development, one that shows how job skills—which are generally thought of as a domestic economic issue—are also linked to American strength overseas.
There are already programs in place to train new apprentices in the defense maritime sector, such as the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Apprentice Program in Hawaii. A partnership between the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, the U.S. Department of Labor, and Honolulu Community College, this program trains young workers in 27 trade occupations, letting them hone their skills while earning a living at a shipyard vital to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In Maine, Bath Iron Works—one of two builders of American guided missile destroyers—developed an in-house training program with the help of a local community college, helping the company meet its manpower needs as it builds the workhorses of the U.S. Navy. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union, a major contributor to the shipbuilding workforce, also has apprenticeship programs. Expanding programs like these and seeking out opportunities for new ones should be a goal of Congress.
Finally, Congress should resist any and all attempts to repeal the Jones Act. Passed in 1920 after World War I revealed the weakness of America's merchant marine fleet in the face of German attacks, this law requires all cargo traveling between two U.S. ports to be carried on American-built ships that are at least 75 percent American-owned and with crews comprised of 75 percent U.S. citizens. The Jones Act supports approximately 650,000 jobs, according to PWC. As America’s shipping and shipbuilding have atrophied, this law keeps them from shrinking even more.
Fans of the free market often attack the Jones Act for its contribution to inflation. One of its benefits, however, is that it assures that members of the Merchant Marine have opportunities to practice their skills, making sure they will be ready to perform their national security duties when the time comes. This training becomes important when remembering their role in national security—in times of urgent need, America needs people transporting military supplies who have learned their craft through repeated work on the high seas.
COVID-19 also took a harsh mental health toll on the Merchant Marine. A University of Washington survey of merchant mariners in 2021 found “nearly half of respondents (49 percent) reporting that their mental health got worse during the pandemic, and 26 percent of respondents reporting their sleep getting worse.” If these essential workers are left idle and not given opportunities to practice their craft, the quality of this vital component of the U.S. workforce will deteriorate even further.
Policymakers may not be used to seeing military might and economic growth as linked. Tackling them at the same time, though, can bring sizeable benefits on both fronts. For America to defend its interests and values around the globe, it needs to rebuild and reinforce the economic foundations of its maritime power.