U.S. sea power requires a large and innovative industrial base. The reports to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020 and Long-Range Plan for Maintenance and Modernization of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020 discuss the need to expand the nation’s industrial infrastructure to support a 355-ship goal. However, overlooked is a critical issue for a Navy heading into possible confrontations with rival great power fleets and smaller regional players to whom modern weapons have proliferated, a topic few want to acknowledge or discuss in polite conversation. Good fortune has allowed policy makers to neglect this topic in recent decades, but it cannot continue to be ignored: battle damage and, more specifically, how to repair it.
The Long-Range Plan for Construction declares: “A healthy and efficient industrial base continues to be the fundamental driver for achieving and sustaining the Navy’s baseline acquisition profiles. Our shipbuilding and supporting vendor base constitute a national security imperative that is unique and must be protected.” Yet, it warns, “We are at a level of fragility. . . . The industrial base will continue to struggle and some elements may not survive another ‘boom/bust’ cycle.” The Long-Range Plan for Maintenance and Modernization argues that “sustaining 355 battle force ships requires an increase and upgrade of public and private industrial capability and capacity.” Critically, “additional dry docks will be needed to address the growing fleet size”—and this for peacetime operations. “Battle damage” is mentioned only once in the report (page 6), and that is to acknowledge the topic will not be discussed until a future report is written.
Both reports present an industrial base at the limit of its capacity, at best. Shipbuilders seem confident they can produce warships on the schedule the Navy has drawn up, but that is largely because the pace of construction is no better than moderate. The 355-ship target will not be reached until 2034; four presidential and seven Congressional elections will pass before then, presenting risks to continuity. (In contrast, consider that President Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship goal was nearly reached in the first year of his successor, President George H. W. Bush.) The international security environment can change rapidly. Could the rate of construction and maintenance be surged? Not likely, judging by the tone of these reports.
In the face of the construction demands, capacity to repair battle damage resulting from combat in a distant theater such as the South China Sea seems to be lacking. The Maintenance and Modernization report calls for expanding beyond the current 21 dry docks on the U.S. Pacific coast merely to reduce current backlogs in the normal routine. When something off schedule occurs, extraordinary measures have to be taken.
Consider the recent experience with the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) after its collision with a merchant ship off the coast of Japan on 17 June 2017. The warship first limped to Japan for evaluation before being sent back to the United States for repairs. But she could not be dealt with at any of the Pacific dockyards; she had to be carried to a dry dock at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The Ingalls facility is the leading construction site for the Arleigh Burke–class, having built 30 of them with more under contract. At the time, the Navy stated, “Only [Ingalls] has the available capacity to restore USS Fitzgerald to full operational status in the shortest period of time with minimal disruption to ongoing repair and new construction work.”
The concentration of the shipbuilding industry (seven naval construction yards owned by four firms) saves money in peacetime but creates potential bottlenecks in war time. There are only three U.S. yards that build commercial oceangoing ships, limiting the additional resources from the private sector that could be mobilized. The commercial shipbuilding industry has been devastated by competition with heavily subsidized foreign rivals. Today, China and South Korea vie for first place, each producing about 40 percent of the commercial market.
Houston-based Patriot Shipping provided the heavy-lift vessel needed to carry the Fitzgerald home. She did not reach Pascagoula until January 2018 and did not leave the dry dock there until mid-April 2019, 22 months after the collision. When the USS Cole (DDG-67) was damaged in suicide attack in Aden in October 2000, she also had to be transported back to the United States for repairs, on a Dutch heavy-lift vessel. The destroyer did not leave its Pascagoula dry dock until September 2001, a shorter stay than the Fitzgerald only because the damage was not as extensive.
The USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collided with a merchant ship near Singapore on 21 August 2017. She was repaired in Japan, where she is home ported, rather than transported back to the United States. The destroyer remained in a Yokohama dry dock from January 2018 until late November, 15 months after the accident. In any Pacific Rim naval war, the hope is that Japan will be an active ally whose facilities would be available to U.S. warships. However, battle-damaged Japanese ships could be competing for repair capacity, and Japan’s yards might come under attack given their proximity to the combat theater.
Each of these destroyer incidents involved only one ship, and none was especially large. How many warships might be damaged in a short period during a war with a major adversary? And might they not include larger ships: cruisers, amphibious assault ships, and aircraft carriers? A 2018 report by the Congressionally chartered National Defense Strategy Commission warned, “Against an enemy equipped with advanced antiaccess/area-denial capabilities, attrition of U.S. capital assets—ships, planes, tanks—could be enormous.” Wargaming at the Naval War College could provide ballpark figures for damage levels that might be suffered in a variety of engagements.
Where would the stricken ships go for repairs and how would they get there? And how long would it take to get them back into action? There is nothing in the current industrial establishment to support anything other than pessimism about the answers.
The Navy’s fiscal year 2020 funding request includes $92 million for drafting the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan, which covers both public and private shipyards. As part of this analysis, the extra capacity to repair battle damage on a realistic scale must be examined, with a focus on creating substantial capacity on the Pacific coast to support repairs in the most likely theater for major naval combat.