Shipbuilding overcapacity

How many yards?

Right now there are four major naval yards and six major private yards that build or perform major work on warships. The US Navy is building four or five major ships a year. Raise your hand if you think this might have anything to do with the high cost of naval warships.

The yards are wards of the Navy, public yards with private ownership. As long as they stay open, they get some Navy business. The Big Six are capable of delivering 20-25 ships a year and were building at nearly that rate during the Reagan administration’s defense buildup. In the 1990s the rate dropped to seven or eight a year. Recently, it’s been as low as four or five. No wonder shipbuilding costs have skyrocketed. With the costs of running all these facilities apportioned to fewer ships, and Congress making sure that each yard has a project, the government reaps no economies of scale. Worse, the underuse of each facility will continue to prevent enough new capital investment to ensure that the best yards stay modern and technologically robust.

And how about the new Litorral Combat Ship (LCS)? That’s going to be a large program with lots of smaller, cheaper ships, right? Right. But

the Navy decided to allow one of the winning teams in its downselect to build the prototypes at shipyards that do not work on frontline warships (Bollinger Shipyard in Louisiana and Marinette Marine in Wisconsin) instead of one of the underutilized Big Six, whose costs it is already carrying. Soon they could be building the rest of the class while the Navy looks for other work to assign the Big Six. And when the LCS is done, why will they not lobby for a follow-on project and make it the Big Six Plus Two?

While getting other yards to build the LCS might have made sense for the LCS program, which I don’t know about one way or the other, it did nothing to help the overall issue of too many yards building too few ships.

The writers have an idea for which yards to go and which yards to stay. Not surprisingly for an opinion piece run in a Virginia newspaper, Newport News is on the list to stay in business. But the problem is spelled out pretty clearly and they make some compelling points.

As long as we’re fighting ragheads with AKs and RPGs in dusty places, the Navy isn’t going to be growing much. My guess is that China doesn’t mind. And don’t forget that, despite what Murdoc considers to be some basic misconceptions about, well, pretty much everything, the governor of Tokyo recently said publicly that the United States could not prevail in a war against China. And he was talking about today. I’d hate to see what he says in eight or ten years.


  1. I’ve said this elsewhere (I think it was Dean’s World). I think ‘could not’ is wrong. ‘Would not’ would be more accurate. That is, I think the military may be capable of it, but I don’t think they’d be given the chance. Unless China was invading the continental US and there was no choice. It’s one thing to be able to defeat an opponent. It’s another to have the will to follow through with it. China has some high-tech stuff but IMO they don’t have enough of it and it would be mostly smouldering wrecks after about 48 hours. The conflict would come down to human waves vs. high tech weapons (gross oversimplification).

  2. MO, It depends on the mission. No existing land force, or conceivable combination of land forces, can invade and occupy China. If the Governor-san meant ‘US forces are incapabale of invading and occupying China’, I agree. But if the mission is sea denial, or air dominance over Taiwan or the strait, that’s another ball of wax. I don’t understand any possible scenario wherein American forces are facing million-man waves of Chinese infantry, a la Korea. Nor did the good governor share his thoughts on that. It’s also possible he’s just talking out his ass, an affliction common to politicians everywhere.

  3. Geeklethal, I was thinking Korean War II, in which it would not be necessary to enter China as such, but possibly push into NK being defended by Chinese troops. I agree with everything you say, especially the bit about Taiwan and talking out of asses. I do find it interesting how the political mud-fight is the most visible aspect of the Iraq war to outsiders. Of course, the amusing paradox here is that the US armed forces are probably more capable right now than they have been any time in the last 20 years or so. I bet a significant proportion of active duty and reserve forces have seen combat in the last few years. Combine that with the increased flexibility of the formations and equipment, and new gear like the F-22, and any conventional force which comes up against the US is going to be hurting. So, funny that they’re thumping their chest despite all that. I guess they must feel that internal US political dissent has a better chance of defeating China’s potential adversaries than China’s armed forces do.