Decades of deindustrialization and downsizing have left America without shipyards to build and maintain a fleet.

After decades of strategic diversions and costly acquisition failures, the U.S. Navy is sailing straight into a storm it cannot avoid. Despite the Department of Defense’s assertion that China is the “pace challenge,” decades of deindustrialization and the failure of policymakers to prioritize between services and threats have left the Navy ill-equipped to withstand sustained, high-intensity conflict. in the Pacific. The United States cannot keep up with the pace of Chinese shipbuilding and will fall further behind in the coming years. Where does this leave the U.S. Navy and the most critical imperative of U.S. foreign policy: deterring war in the Pacific?

As evidenced by the Biden administration’s latest budget request, fiscal constraints are forcing the Navy to reduce acquisition orders, delay modernization programs, and retire ships early. The Navy’s budget for fiscal year 2025 calls for scrapping 19 ships — including three nuclear-powered attack submarines and four guided-missile cruisers — while acquiring just six new ships. The full scope of what military analysts have long warned would be the “Roaring Twenties” is now clear: the costly upgrade of the U.S. nuclear triad, simultaneous modernization efforts across all services, and the curbing of rising government debt are forcing the Pentagon to make difficult choices about what it can and cannot pay.

Labor shortages and supply chain issues are also limiting shipbuilding capacity. The defense industrial base is still struggling to recover from post-Cold War budget cuts that drastically reduced U.S. defense production. The Navy needs more shipyard capacity, but finding enough skilled workers for the shipyards remains the biggest barrier to expanding production. The shipbuilding industry is struggling to attract talent, losing out to fast food restaurants that offer better pay and benefits to entry-level employees. Ultimately, it is the shortage of welders, not devices, that must be overcome if the US Navy is to grow its fleet.

Instead, the outlook for shipbuilding is progressively worsening. An internal review ordered by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro in January concluded that key programs, including submarines and aircraft carriers, face long delays. Even the Constellation-class frigates, touted as a quick adaptation of a proven European design, are delayed by three years.

As defense analyst David Alman described in an award-winning essay for the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, the United States simply cannot win a warship race with China. The United States effectively gave up commercial shipbuilding during the Reagan administration in the name of free trade. In the decades that followed, generous state subsidies helped China dominate commercial shipbuilding, and Beijing’s demand that the sector be dual-use resulted in an industry that could shift to ship production and repair for the military during a conflict. , just as North American shipyards did during World War II. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates that China now has 232 times the shipbuilding capacity of the United States. China built almost half of the world’s new ships in 2022, while US shipyards produced just 0.13%.

Rebuilding the arsenal of democracy that anchored the US victory at sea 80 years ago will not happen overnight or cheaply – it is a generational project. The 20-year Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, intended to modernize dry docks, facilities and equipment, will end up costing much more than the anticipated $21 billion. But the plan is only intended to maximize existing U.S. industrial capacity and will do little to bridge the huge shipbuilding gap with China. This would require a reconstitution program equivalent to the series of maritime laws passed after World War I, which supported the expansion of an industrial base eventually capable of producing thousands of aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, frigates and cargo ships for the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

Realizing that North American shipyards are overwhelmed, policymakers have started looking abroad. Del Toro encouraged South Korean companies to invest in U.S. naval shipping during a visit this year. Japan will likely begin carrying out repair and maintenance work on US warships soon; India agreed to do so last year. These initiatives will alleviate the growing maintenance backlog at U.S. facilities, but it would take a large portion of the combined capacity of Japanese and South Korean shipyards to fundamentally alter the growing disparity between the size of the U.S. and Chinese fleet in the Western Pacific.

Not all ships are comparable, of course. U.S. warships are heavier and more capable than China’s, although shortages of logistics ships and shipping capacity are major concerns. Still, the current era of missile warfare has increased the importance of fleet size.

Without enough ships to match the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, what can the United States do to maintain conventional deterrence in the Pacific and avoid war? At least two big things: buying missiles and reducing missions.

First, to manage risk in the short term, the Navy and other services need to quickly acquire more munitions – focusing on the weapons and capabilities, not the platforms that carry them.

The Russia-Ukraine war made military planners think less about short, quick conflicts and more about long wars and their vast need for material. What applies to depleted stocks of land artillery also applies to many of the weapons needed for war at sea. A much-publicized 2023 war game conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the United States would run out of its entire inventory of the main long-range anti-ship missile in the early days of a war over Taiwan. Increased acquisition and production of these munitions, as well as Joint Strike Missiles, Land Attack Missiles, and Harpoon Missiles, will allow U.S. air power to help even the odds in the Pacific.

Anti-ship systems operated by the Army and Marines could also complement the firepower of the other services. However, the deployment of land-based missiles will require the consent of allies. To date, no Asian ally of the United States has offered to permanently host US missile batteries, due to political sensitivities and the fact that these countries already possess such weapons of their own.

Innovation and creativity could further increase U.S. naval power. Retired US Navy Colonel T.X. Hammes, a researcher at the National Defense University, has urged the Navy to convert commercial container ships into warships capable of launching missiles, which would add a tremendous amount of firepower at a bargain price. . These “missile traders” would also require significantly less manpower than traditional warships, an important consideration given the Navy’s struggle to fill existing quarters.

Policymakers also need to make difficult choices and limit naval deployments. Although the Navy is shrinking, its missions are not. A high operational tempo, labor shortages and an aging fleet are fueling a readiness crisis that is exhausting sailors and ships.

Addressing the readiness crisis requires a careful analysis of which missions are essential to U.S. security and which are not. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Work wrote, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Navy has spent 30 years prioritizing global presence over combat readiness. Deadly shipping accidents in the Pacific in 2017 involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain were directly attributable to this unsustainable mania for global presence, according to a Navy analysis.

The pre-eminence of presence missions also has more subtle consequences. After 20 years of virtually uncontested missions in the Middle East, the US Navy now has an adversary fighting back: Yemen’s Houthis. But increased expertise in missile and drone defense is offset by a damaging drain on precision munitions. In the conflict with the Houthis, the Navy burned more Tomahawk land attack missiles in one day than it purchased in all of 2023. Meanwhile, the Houthis can replace all the equipment destroyed by the US strikes with just two shipments from Iran, of according to Gen. Michael Kurilla, head of US Central Command.

The costs of maintaining a global presence are magnified by the Navy’s state of recruitment and retention. The service’s recruitment problems are undeniable. The Navy missed all of its 2023 recruiting goals, some by as much as 35%. The service projects a shortfall of 6,700 recruits this year, according to its personnel director.

As with the rest of the all-volunteer force, unprecedented recruiting headwinds mean manpower shortages will continue to be a persistent challenge for the Navy. In the absence of any change in operational tempo, sailors will work harder, deploy more frequently, and leave service in greater numbers – ensuring a downward spiral in both manning and readiness.

The United States cannot match the size of China’s fleet in the short or medium term. Deindustrialization, poor procurement choices and a myopic fixation on the US presence in the Middle East have contributed to this. That said, the U.S. Navy still maintains several significant advantages in a potential conflict with China: undersea dominance, sheer tonnage, blue water experience, and support from capable allies. A large increase in joint munitions purchases and an end to readiness creep from presence detachments to secondary theaters will increase the Navy’s advantage during the potential peak window for Chinese action in Taiwan over the next decade. The alternative is grim. If conventional deterrence fails, there is a risk of military defeat for the United States or something even more dangerous: nuclear confrontation between the two world superpowers.

By Gil Child Dollarsenior fellow in Defense Priorities and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Statistics at the Catholic University of America and Matthew C. Mai is a research associate at Defense Priorities. Via FP.


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