Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Gates to the ship industry: Shape up

When I covered the Pentagon, I was consistently struck by the extreme politicization of the shipbuilding industry. Basically, for years, any moves had to be threaded between several congressional powers: John Warner (and Chuck Robb) of Virginia, Trent Lott of Mississippi and William Cohen of Maine. More than any other business I ever examined in ...

history.navy.mil
history.navy.mil
history.navy.mil

When I covered the Pentagon, I was consistently struck by the extreme politicization of the shipbuilding industry. Basically, for years, any moves had to be threaded between several congressional powers: John Warner (and Chuck Robb) of Virginia, Trent Lott of Mississippi and William Cohen of Maine. More than any other business I ever examined in my 17 years at the old Wall Street Journal, in this industry, decisions were made not for business reasons but for political ones. The shipyards tended to be the largest private employers in each state, and the distribution of contracts could sway elections.

But now all of those congressional powers have moved on, and people from states like Michigan, Washington and Missouri, never shipbuilding centers, hold the key committee chairmanships. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday appropriately launched an effort to get the industry to become more rational:

Current submarines and amphibious ships are three times as expensive as their equivalents during the 1980s -- this in the context of an overall shipbuilding and conversion budget that is 20 percent less. Just a few years ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected that meeting the Navy's shipbuilding plan would cost more than $20 billion per year -- double the shipbuilding budget of recent years, and a projection that was underfunded by some 30 percent. It is reasonable to wonder whether the nation is getting a commensurate increase in capability in exchange for these spiraling costs.

When I covered the Pentagon, I was consistently struck by the extreme politicization of the shipbuilding industry. Basically, for years, any moves had to be threaded between several congressional powers: John Warner (and Chuck Robb) of Virginia, Trent Lott of Mississippi and William Cohen of Maine. More than any other business I ever examined in my 17 years at the old Wall Street Journal, in this industry, decisions were made not for business reasons but for political ones. The shipyards tended to be the largest private employers in each state, and the distribution of contracts could sway elections.

But now all of those congressional powers have moved on, and people from states like Michigan, Washington and Missouri, never shipbuilding centers, hold the key committee chairmanships. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday appropriately launched an effort to get the industry to become more rational:

Current submarines and amphibious ships are three times as expensive as their equivalents during the 1980s — this in the context of an overall shipbuilding and conversion budget that is 20 percent less. Just a few years ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected that meeting the Navy’s shipbuilding plan would cost more than $20 billion per year — double the shipbuilding budget of recent years, and a projection that was underfunded by some 30 percent. It is reasonable to wonder whether the nation is getting a commensurate increase in capability in exchange for these spiraling costs.

The Navy’s DDG-1000 is a case in point. By the time the Navy leadership curtailed the program, the price of each ship had more than doubled and the projected fleet had dwindled from 32 to seven. The programmed buy is now three.

Or consider plans for a new ballistic missile submarine, the SSBN(X). Right now, the Department proposes spending $6 billion in research and development over the next few years — for a projected buy of twelve subs at $7 billion apiece. Current requirements call for a submarine with the size and payload of a boomer — and the stealth of an attack sub. In a congressional hearing earlier this year, I pointed out that in the later part of this decade the new ballistic missile submarine alone would begin to eat up the lion’s share of the Navy’s shipbuilding resources.

This may be Gates’ last crusade before he rides into the sunset next year. I wish him well.

(HT to AD)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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