“Don’t give up the ship!” These were Capt. James Lawrence’s dying words defending the USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812. Over 200 years later, the United States Navy and America’s critical shipbuilding industry are issuing the same cry from shipyards across our nation.
Here is a simple truth: A true renaissance of America’s shipbuilding industry will require a large-scale overhaul and new strategy before it can churn out the ships we urgently need to maintain our status as the greatest maritime power in world history.
In the first year of his “Peace through Strength” administration, President Donald Trump made a 355-ship Navy the official national policy by signing the 2018 Defense Authorization Act. Currently, however, we are asking too few ships to do too much while many vessels are decades old and severely backlogged for critical repairs. This egregiously long queue is an open invitation to foreign adversaries, who are displaying increasingly aggressive postures and rapidly expanding their own naval capabilities.
Today, only seven shipyards across the country are capable of constructing large or deep-draft Navy vessels. More subtly, each yard has become specialized to build a specific warship, whether it be a nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarine or an Independence-class littoral combat ship. This specialization, while optimal for workforce training and infrastructure investments at specific yards, makes them remarkably vulnerable when there is a downturn in government contracts or the private market contracts.
Foreign competitors such as China anchor their shipyards in tens of billions of mercantilist and predatory government subsidies every year. Unable to compete with such foreign subsidization, the American shipbuilding industry has lost 75,000 jobs — a decline of over 40 percent. For every shipbuilding job in America, three indirect jobs are supported. We have therefore allowed predatory foreign markets to steal approximately 300,000 good-paying American jobs — the population of St. Louis, Missouri.
Our strategic and economic adversaries know the importance of shipbuilding. To understand the dangers, consider this: From 2010 to 2018, the Chinese Communist Party has provided over $130 billion in shipping and shipbuilding subsidies. Now, it controls the world’s second-largest commercial fleet by gross tons, and constructs one-third of the world’s ships.
If Pax Americana is to continue, we must live up to the maxim of former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and 26th President Teddy Roosevelt: “A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guarantee of peace.”
Restoring investment in shipbuilding will leave a wake of prosperity for our economic security and send waves of strength for our national security. Expansion in capacity and capabilities of our shipyards will again incentivize commercial shipbuilding, increasing industry efficiency and creating competition, eventually lowering the overall cost of production. This must be our policy goal.
If we commit to a revitalization of our shipyards, in just a few years, scores of vessels could again make maiden voyages from American yards built at the hands of thousands of American steelworkers, pipefitters, welders and electricians — a renaissance of one of our nation’s most integral industries. This would mean thousands of new jobs in Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and throughout the Gulf Coast. This means secure waters around Greenland, the Bering Strait and the South China Sea as well as the straits of Bab el-Mandeb, Malacca and Hormuz.
While the 296-ship fleet of the U.S. Navy is still the most powerful in the world, Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is now sailing approximately 350 warships and counting. Some estimates say Communist China’s Navy could be as large as 450 ships by 2030 — and it’s not just China that is a cause for concern.
While the Chinese Communist Party militarizes the South China Sea, Russia — which will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May 2021 — has been quietly rebuilding its Arctic fleet. This is a region that will be of critical importance in the years to come as northern shipping lanes open and natural resources make themselves available. As it stands now, the U.S. Navy can’t effectively access these waters, as it lacks the ice-hardened warships to do so.
Our shipbuilding industry was once a bulwark of American manufacturing, but decades of neglect, ambivalence to predatory foreign markets and sequestration have caused it to take on water. If we don’t begin patching the holes now, it won’t be just an industry that sinks. It may well be our economic and national security, as we will be unable to protect the world’s sea lanes — the arteries of commerce and veins of national defense.
While our enemies argue American manufacturing and might is on the decline, we repeat the battle cry of Capt. John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Peter Navarro is the assistant to the president and director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy within the White House.