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    Thursday, May 23, 2024

    The problem with the Navy’s math

    In a masterpiece of understatement and civility, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, told the assistant secretary of the Navy testifying last week before the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that the Navy’s decision to reduce the number of ships under construction in fiscal year 2025 was “unexpected.”

    The Second District congressman’s language was measured but the potential impact of the budget request showed in his tone of great urgency. In its FY 25 request, the Navy cuts back to one Virginia class submarine, citing COVID-era supply chain delays, a defense spending cap and the lack of an adopted FY24 budget as reasons to spend instead of upgrading the industrial base for submarine building.

    The change would put on hold the procurement of materials and components that suppliers have already been assembling and it would lower the number of workers needed in the immediate future — after a highly successful push for workforce training has been turning out new Electric Boat shipbuilders at record rates.

    The proposed cuts extend to classes of vessels under contract, design and construction at other shipyards as well. An additional motive seems to be to fire a shot across the bow of manufacturers: Production needs to catch up to its timetables, and until it does, the Navy will put a hold on its next order.

    Unfortunately, the Navy’s math does not take into account the loss of time and money from stopping and restarting a system with so many moving parts. Upgrading resources, specifically the Submarine Industrial Base of shipbuilding capabilities, sounds prudent, but not at the cost of destabilizing a production system already in motion.

    Everything about designing and building a U.S. Navy warship is complicated, from the procurement of materials to the size and skills of the workforce to having enough contract officers to oversee the project on behalf of the Navy.

    The ramifications of an abrupt change would echo through the rest of the process. An obvious example is training time and resources. Collaboration among Electric Boat, schools, workforce experts and the state has contributed to the hiring of more than 5,000 people last year and a projected 5,000 more in the coming year.

    It takes time to learn a trade well enough to meet the safety and durability standards of the U.S. Navy. It takes time to build a ship that will safely and effectively allow crews to carry out their missions for decades.

    What happens to all that investment and those high-level skills if the Navy sets aside a Virginia-class attack submarine for a year? Maybe they move to a new job in another state, and when the schedule resumes, they stay there.

    The ultimate question is how the submarine force maintains its vaunted “asymmetrical advantage” in international waters without a steady flow of new ships.

    Questions from the subcommittee’s bipartisan membership indicated a consensus that reducing the Navy’s shopping list makes no sense at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East and intensifying competition from China. The Navy has said it needs a minimum of 66 submarines to carry out its mission; currently the number available for deployment hovers slightly above 50.

    At the Navy’s own March press conference announcing the FY25 request, officials held up the abiding goal of equipping and training U.S. service members for readiness in all situations across the world. At the Seapower and Project Forces hearing, members made a point of thanking those who serve and those who construct the vessels on which they carry out their missions.

    There is no question that the public shipyards built before World War I need attention so they can do the maintenance and repair work that keeps the fleet ready to go to sea. A choice between building new ships and keeping older ones in service cannot be all about either one. If there has to be a choice, it makes sense for the Navy not to abandon next year’s goal of two new attack submarines. Even more fundamental would be for Congress to pass the FY24 budget, allowing the Navy to make its annual choices on a normal, reasonable basis. Pass the budget. Build the two Virginia-class subs. Let everyone do the jobs they have trained for.

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