By Edwin M. Hood, President Shipbuilders Council Of America

"Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." This statement by President Carter in 1980 drew sharp attention to the questionable adequacy of U.S. naval and sealift resources and to the spreading competition of the U.S.S.R. for sea control.

While the Secretary of Defense vowed that "only the United States can offset direct military power" in the Middle East, the thin margin of safety—the margin of strategic superiority—is f a s t slipping to the Soviet Union by default.

The assorted naval shipbuilding programs of recent years have not produced the requisite number of ships necessary to maintain U.S. naval superiority in the present decade. The Joint Chiefs of Staff see a national security requirement for a Navy of 770 active ships exclusive of naval reserve vessels. In comparison, the Carter Administration predicated its shipbuilding planning on a fleet of 550 ships, both active and reserve, by the early 1980's. This l e g e r d e m a i n with numbers can be perplexing. President Reagan, in his 1980 campaign, called for development of "a 600-ship Navy composed of U.S.-built ships as quickly as the budget would permit," but he made no distinction between active and reserve vessels. From FY '70 through FY '77, the Congress cut 43 naval ships from budgets submitted by Presidents Nixon and Ford. In the FY '77 FY '80 span, President Carter requested funds for only 15 ships per year, enough to sustain only a 400-ship fleet.

The c u r r e n t five-year naval shipbuilding program of 97 ships plus the current backlog of 91 vessels will enable the fleet to increase from the present total of 456 ships to 492 by FY '84.

Thereafter, according to defense analysts, unless changes are made the same fleet will drop to about 400 active ships.

For the United States is to possess the naval capacity to neutralize any "assault" on the nation's vital interests as President Carter put it—or, for the United States to demonstrate "America's control of the seas in the face of any challenge," as P r e s i d e nt Reagan has put it, a larger Navy and an expanded naval ship construction effort will obviously be required.

Knowledgeable groups have endeavored to estimate the dimension of a five-year naval shipbuilding plan that will provide reasonable surety for the country.

All are greater in numbers than that put forward by the Carter Administration.

A former Secretary of the Navy and the president of The Navy League of the U n i t e d S t a t es joined in urging for a five-year program of 155 newbuildings and five conversions to achieve a 550- ship naval fleet by 1985. The Committee on the Present Danger, composed of former national security officials, proposed a sixyear shipbuilding program of 224 vessels to enable a 650-ship threeocean Navy fleet plus a permanent presence in the Caribbean Sea.

A bi-partisan group of 30 Capitol Hill staff members who work primarily in areas involving national security and foreign policy warned: "Ten years of Congressional lethargy and three years of open anti-military hostility in the Carter Administration are going to prove costly to Americans for many years to come and regardless of specific corrective actions." It recommended a fiveyear, 158 Navy ship construction program (plus seven conversions) "to return America to a position of military strength capable of sustaining independent diplomatic or military action and unviolated national sovereignty." With indications late in the year that the final Carter Administration FY '82 Budget would reduce the latest official five-year naval shipbuilding plan below the 97 ship level associated with the FY '81 Budget, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, based in the nation's capital, proposed a 1982-1986 ship construction program of 135 ships to remedy current problems of "maintain(ing) a t h r e e ocean commitment with a one ocean Navy." Almost simultaneously, the Heritage Foundation, another public policy research institute, also headquartered in Washington, called for a naval building program of 30 ships per year at a cost of $11 billion annually (in FY '81 dollars).

These proposals would involve construction ranging between 27 and 37 Navy ships per year, compared with an average of 15 ships ordered in the 1970 decade. To reach an active fleet of 600 ships by the mid-1990s, as President Reagan stipulated during the 1980 campaign, would require new contracts at the rate of 25 to 30 vessels per year and would engage the services of some 16 shipyards as opposed to just 11 yards currently involved. With a lead time of three to seven years to deliver sophisticated w a r s h i p s, f u r t h e r vacillation can only be at national peril.

In 1980, there were also varied views with respect to the nation's sealift readiness. The Iranian crisis and the subsequent increased tempo of Indian Ocean operations gave rise to the opportunistic acquisition of ships for the Military Sealift Command to compensate for past shipbuilding neglect. Regrettably, the present U.S.-built inventory is limited and negotiations proceed for the purchase of a British combat stores ship and eight foreign-built containerships for ultimate conversion to Fast Logistics Ships. In addition, longterm charters are being offered for foreign-built roll-on / roll-off (RO/RO) ships.

In the longer view, the newly created Rapid Deployment Force, composed of existing Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine units to rush to distant trouble spots in the Arabian Gulf or elsewhere to defend U.S. vital interests, envisions conversion of four existing U.S.-built vessels with rollon/ roll-off (RO/RO) capabilities plus construction of eight Maritime Pre-positioning Ships (TAKX).

However, in passing FY '81 appropriations, the Congress deleted $207 million for the TAKX program, and only approved $33 million in advance procurement funding.

Of gravest concern, in these regards, is the preservation of an available shipbuilding capacity to achieve a hoped-for increase in naval ship requirements. At the s t a r t of the 1970 decade, less than 40,000 workers in private shipyards were engaged in naval construction. Naval ships then on order caused the w o r k f o r c e, skilled in the ways of Navy shipbuilding, to grow to 83,000 by mid-1979.

At year end, naval construction commanded the labors of some 60,000 s k i l l e d s h i p y a rd workers. Due to the absence of contract opportunities in the recent past, that employment level may fall.

Given the task to build the larger U.S. Navy of the future, the shipbuilding industry must maintain its skills and experienced work force equal to the task.

Other stories from June 1981 issue


Maritime Reporter

First published in 1881 Maritime Reporter is the world's largest audited circulation publication serving the global maritime industry.