Congress must step in to fix America’s shipbuilding crisis

The U.S. Navy is in the midst of a shipbuilding crisis that will leave the United States and our men and women in uniform perilously overmatched in an increasingly dangerous world if it is not addressed soon.

This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee is negotiating the details of the National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that has passed every year since its inception. It is critical that the committee, of which I am a member, address the shipbuilding crisis in this legislation. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle and I have a number of amendments to the NDAA addressing this crisis. Congress must intervene because it has been abundantly clear that President Joe Biden and his secretary of the Navy will not.

Recently, I led a bipartisan Senate delegation to the Indo-Pacific, where our Navy’s power is critical to our own security and that of our allies. The concern over declining American shipbuilding power was front and center. As I spoke with the newly elected Taiwanese president, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s ships were encircling the island democracy.

Over the past few years, China’s navy has grown rapidly. It currently has about 370 warships and is on pace to have more than 400 by 2027 — the year Chinese President Xi Jinping has directed his forces to be ready to invade Taiwan.

Meanwhile, under Biden, the U.S. Navy has shrunk to just 293 ships and is on pace to shrink to 280 in 2027 — what could amount to a dangerous 120-ship deficit compared to the Chinese navy.

After years of pressure from Congress, Biden’s Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro recently completed a review of the devastating state of the Navy’s shipbuilding programs. The results of that review were abysmal: five of the Navy’s major shipbuilding programs — the Columbia-class submarine, the Constellation-class frigate, the Ford-class aircraft carriers, and the Block IV and Block V Virginia-class submarines — are all delayed between one and three years.

If the Navy secretary had been doing his job properly, the report would have been released two years earlier. Instead, the secretary of the Navy has been distracted from his core mission of warfighting and shipbuilding, focusing instead on matters such as climate change. In Del Toro’s nomination hearing testimony, for example, he devoted a full paragraph to the “climate crisis” and did not even once mention shipbuilding, lethality, or warfighting. Likewise, in his strategic guidance that he issued to the Navy and Marine Corps, an important document that lays out the secretary’s vision for our naval force, he mentioned climate change nine times but didn’t once address increasing the size of the U.S. fleet during these dangerous times.

The result is that Del Toro still has not provided a clear plan to remedy the shipbuilding crisis.

The Navy secretary’s responsibilities are authorized under Title 10 of the United States Code. These responsibilities focus on the mission “to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.” Combating climate change is not one of the Navy secretary’s listed Title 10 responsibilities.

Late last month, we held a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee on the posture and readiness of the U.S. Navy. During that hearing, I asked the commandant of the Marine Corps and the chief of naval operations about leadership and accountability. They both confirmed that military commanders are relieved — fired — when they fail to meet their command responsibilities.

I then asked the Navy secretary, “If a Marine platoon commander gets relieved because one of his Marines loses a rifle and a Navy captain gets relieved because his crew hits another ship while the captain is asleep, should the secretary of the Navy be relieved or resign for failing on his No. 1 mission — shipbuilding?” 

He didn’t like the question. 

In my 30 years of public service, I’ve never seen U.S. Navy readiness at such a low point. And it’s not just me. This is a widespread, bipartisan concern. Numerous experts have also warned how ill-prepared our Navy is to meet global challenges and to keep us safe, particularly in the vital Indo-Pacific region, which includes my home state, Alaska. Recently, experts from the Congressional Research Service told me that “the U.S. Navy is in its worst state for designing, building, maintaining, and crewing ships in over 40 years.”

My amendments to the NDAA would address this crisis by requiring the Navy to be more predictable with procurement profiles so industry can respond with capital investments and workforce development, increasing the tenure of the admiral in charge of ship design and procurement, and working toward increasing our country’s shipbuilding capacity by identifying viable locations for two additional shipyards west of the Panama Canal. 

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With advanced computer-aided design, we can also now take advantage of skilled workers in the interior of the country by designing modular Navy ships with major parts being built inland, from Wisconsin to Alaska, and then assembled on the coasts.

Because the Navy secretary is failing in his responsibilities, Congress must step in to fulfill its Article I constitutional responsibility “to provide and maintain a Navy.” As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ranking member of the Readiness and Management Subcommittee, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

Dan Sullivan is a U.S. senator for Alaska and serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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