In 1981, the United States withdrew direct shipbuilding subsidies, and—when combined with increased regulation, higher labor costs, and labor shortages—domestic shipyards have since been unable to compete with global yards. As a result, there has been a decrease in the number of U.S. shipyards and an increase in shipbuilding costs and delays.1 Fewer civilian shipyards mean fewer facilities available to support repair efforts and a smaller skilled labor pool to tap into in the event of war. Should there be another major naval war, many believe current industrial facilities would be unable to return battle-damaged ships to the fight quickly enough.2
The lack of capability to repair battle-damaged ships is not a hypothetical problem. In his 2020 report, Naval Campaigning: The 2020 Marine Corps Capstone Operating Concept, Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger raised significant concerns about the United States’ ability to replace combat losses in the event of a war in the western Pacific. General Berger noted that repair ability is an element of deterrence; if U.S. adversaries believe the United States cannot engage in a protracted fight, they may be more aggressive with their military strategy and diplomacy. In addition, adversaries may consider a longer-term strategic victory lies in a short-term defeat, based on the United States’ inability to reconstitute power projection forces in a timely manner.3
U.S. Shipyard Status
Today, the U.S. shipbuilding industry relies on public and private shipyards with a mix of government and civilian workers.
Workforce. As of March 2022, there were approximately 150,000 shipbuilding and ship-repair workers employed by private U.S. shipyards, while public (government-owned) shipyards employed nearly 38,400 shipbuilding and ship-repair workers.4 Increasing shipbuilding and repair capacity will demand more skilled workers, including engineers, electricians, pipefitters, and welders. A major concern in the industry is the lack of welders, which may stem from the emphasis on college education rather than technical skills and industrial trades in today’s society.5
Shipyard facilities. In 1981, the Office of Management and Budget started terminating subsidies for commercial shipbuilding.6 Undertaken during the Reagan administration, this reflected the trend away from government market interference. Since then, the domestic commercial shipbuilding market has all but collapsed. In the first ten years following the end of the subsidies, the United States saw shipbuilding workers drop from 120,000 to 72,000 and 110 shipbuilders down to 60.7 This trend has only continued. Today, it is estimated that only nine shipyards in the United States can construct large commercial and naval ships.8
Six rounds of government naval base closures have been completed, resulting in the loss of more than 350 installations since 1988.9 The public sector is not alone—the private sector also has experienced closures and realignments. Most recently, the BAE Systems Hawaii ship-repair site on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base closed its doors to ship repair in the first quarter of 2021.10 The reason for the decision cited by BAE was the Navy changing its contracting procedures.
Guam, one of the U.S. territories to closest China, removed its drydocks in 2016. The USS Richland (ADFM-8), an AFDM-3–class drydock that had been in service since World War II, was sold because the Guam pier facilities were receiving repairs. According to Navy leaders, this resulted in insufficient room for the drydock.11
After shutting down its base in Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1992, the Navy moved “Big Blue” (named for the paint scheme), an AFDB-8–class drydock, to Guam. In 1997, the shipyard bought the drydock and used it for repairs. However, the drydock itself needed repairs, and in 2016 it was removed and sent to a Singaporean ship-repair facility.12
These and other closures and realignments created ripple effects throughout the fleet, adding to existing maintenance concerns. According to a Naval Sea Systems Command report, as of 2014 there were only 54 Navy-certified drydocks in public and private shipyards across the United States.13
A recent quantitative study—An Examination of the U.S. Pacific Ship Repair Industry’s Workforce and Facilities Capabilities in the Event of Missile Centric Warfare in the Western Pacific Ocean—was designed to determine whether the current Pacific-based ship repair capability would be sufficient to keep up with demands in the event of a missile-centric war. Given current tactics, the study was limited to destroyers.14
The study combined three critical variables—workforce, facilities, and repair time—in a simulation. Multiple iterations of the simulation were conducted to understand best- and worst-case scenarios. Battle tempo (the frequency with which ships engaged in battle) was modeled after naval battles in the Pacific during World War II, and the severity of missile damage was modeled on Royal Navy lessons from the Falklands War.
As part of the simulation, the current workforce was calculated by completing an inventory of active shipyards and reaching out to their human resources departments for employment statistics. In two of the simulations, there was an insufficient number of workers to complete repairs, assuming 700 workers per damaged ship. Both situations occurred when Chinese missile success was simulated to be above 50 percent. In some of the simulations, there were enough workers, but they were not located in the right geographic areas to conduct the work.
Facility capacity was calculated by completing an inventory of active shipyards. Each shipyard provided the number of piers and drydocks capable of repairing a destroyer-class vessel (with piers being assumed to repair moderate damage and drydocks being assumed to repair heavy damage). These numbers were then cross-checked against U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration data. Like workforce capacity, facilities became an issue in two of the simulations when Chinese missile success was simulated to be above 50 percent. The fleet could not field enough ships to meet the demand for the remaining simulations, and the United States was unable to continue the war.
Repair Ships Faster
Of all the variables, the high repair time for heavy damage was the biggest factor in preventing the fleet from keeping up with battle tempo and demand. Lengthy repair time was further exacerbated by the small number of drydocks available. However, unlike heavy damage, moderate damage in every simulation did not witness saturation because of the shorter estimated repair window, and ships were able to return to the fleet faster, which helped support battle demand.
The simulation assumed a 14-month repair window for heavy damage, based on the time frame for repairs of the USS Stark (FFG-31) and USS Cole (DDG-67). This might be unrealistic during wartime. Both ships were repaired during peacetime with no additional strains on the workforce or materials. During wartime, repairs could take longer. Therefore, the Pacific repair industry should add (in strategic and tactically relevant locations) at least seven drydocks (a 50 percent increase over the current number in active service) that can repair a destroyer and add at least 5,000 workers (spread among the drydock locations) before any conflict starts.
Highlighted in the research on the Stark and Cole repairs is the complexity of today’s destroyers. They are far more advanced and complex than World War II–era ships, making their repair times longer. Recommendations to improve repair time include building a new class of mission-specific ships (antisubmarine, antisurface, antiair) that could be mass produced—which would help decrease construction and repair time—in addition to today’s “do it all” destroyers, future frigates, and cruisers. This would provide more options for defense in depth.
Another variable that will affect repair time is the experience of the workforce. Efforts should be made to retain experienced veteran shipyard workers. Congress should consider bolstering its relationship with the Department of Education, shipyards, and the Navy to incentivize the training and retention of skilled workers. Federal and state education departments could encourage high schools to push trade schools and trade fairs with an emphasis on welding, pipefitting, and electrical skills. In addition, reintroducing subsidies would spur the growth of U.S. shipbuilding and repair facilities.
Repairing ships quickly will be the critical variable in sustaining the fleet during any conflict. Repair capability, however, cannot be developed and increased quickly. As the simulations discussed here modeled the near future, it was assumed that shipbuilding would remain at current levels. If additional ships could be added to the fleet quickly, that could affect the outcome, but only for a short time as repair facilities could become saturated again—and replacing damaged ships with new ones is likely an unsustainable strategy. Fourteen months is too long to get damaged ships back in the fight. The United States must find a way to repair ships faster, and the process must begin now.
1. Aaron Klein, Decline in U.S. Shipbuilding Industry: A Cautionary Tale of Foreign Subsidies Destroying U.S. Jobs, Eno Center for Transportation, 1 September 2015.
2. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Issues Revision to OFRP Deployment Schedule,” USNI News, 28 October 2020.
3. Paul McLeary, “In War, Chinese Shipyards Could Outpace U.S. in Replacing Losses; Marine Commandant,” Breaking Defense, 17 June 2020.
4. NAICS 3,366 ship and boat building, all U.S., private and public ownerships, 2022, in Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).
5. Naval Sea Systems Command, “Navy Industry Leadership Meeting,” 20 September 2018, 61.
6. Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, An Analysis of President Reagan’s Budget Revisions for Fiscal Year 1982 (Washington, DC: Congress of the United States, 1981).
7. “U.S. Shipbuilding Industry Tops 110,000 Jobs,” The Maritime Executive, 3 November 2015.
8. Tim Colton, “U.S. Builders of Large Ships,” Shipbuildinghistory.com.
9. Congressional Research Service (CRS), Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC): Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2019).
10. Nick Blenkey, “BAE Systems Ship Repair to Cease Pearl Harbor Operations in 2021,” Marine Log, 25 December 2019.
11. “WWII–Era Drydock Moving from Guam to Philippines,” Stars and Stripes, 28 January 2016.
12. Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno, “Dry Dock Moved from Guam for Repairs,” Pacific Daily News, 30 August 2016.
13. Bradley Martin, Michael E. McMahon, Jessie Riposo, James G. Kallimani, Angelena Bohman, Alyssa Ramos, and Abby Schendt, A Strategic Assessment of the Future of U.S. Navy Ship Maintenance (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), 43.
14. Keegan Hoey, “An Examination of the U.S. Pacific Ship Repair Industry’s Workforce and Facilities Capabilities in the Event of Missile-Centric Warfare in the Western Pacific Ocean,” U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (Fort Leavenworth, KS: 2021).