January 2012


In the second panel discussion on Tuesday at West 2012, ‘The Future of Shipbuilding: what can the nation afford?,’ included some familiar but still valuable refrains. The litany of recent acquisition failures and the challenges now facing the U.S. Navy and the U.S. shipbuilding industry hardly need repeating here. It is all too familiar to all of us. The panel seemed to come down on the optimistic side, and it does seem like some important lessons have been learned and fixes are being implemented. But it was also apparent just how much more needs to be done.

While much of the discussion was good and insightful it remained rooted (not unjustifiably) in where we’re at and how we move forward with what we have now.

But if Alfred Thayer Mahan was in the room, I tend to doubt he’d be surprised about our predicament. I don’t mean the specifics, but that we are in the position we are in more generically. Mahan tells us that the foundation of a strong Navy is strong maritime commerce and maritime culture. Warships are expensive — and they were when we built our first six frigates. But from our founding to the time Mahan wrote The Influence of Seapower Upon History in 1890, we truly were a maritime nation and only a small fraction of our ocean-going citizenry were in the employ of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

We are perhaps more reliant than ever on maritime commerce, but ships built elsewhere, flagged elsewhere and crewed from elsewhere sustain the flow of commerce, energy and raw materials that contribute to our livelihood and way of life. There are obviously sound commercial reasons why much of this has taken place. And I’m certainly not advocating that we embark on some sort of state-driven commercial enterprise.

But it does seem like when we talk about fixing shipbuilding, we might benefit from a discussion about why the biggest ships and offshore rigs in the world are built more efficiently and more reliably elsewhere or why Maersk’s headquarters is in Copenhagen. And perhaps most importantly, why much of what domestic, commercial maritime shipping there is exists only due to a 1920s piece of legislation (updated in 2006) and why that legislation has done little to cultivate robust, competitive maritime commerce. We may not be able to pull global shipbuilding out of South Korea and China, but should we be resigned to a world in which the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Military Sealift Command are the principal customers of yards in the United States capable of building large ships? That’s certainly the reality we’re stuck with in the near-term, but are there ways we can re-incentivize American shipbuilding and American maritime commerce?

Posted by nhughes in Navy

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  • Byron

    Short answer: Unions. Government regulations.

    We used to be the worlds premier shipbuilders…just ask the Japanese. Now our goods sail on foreign bottoms and companies that are really owned by American business’s register their line in places like Liberia or Malta to avoid all the regulations…and unions.

  • RickWilmes

    Anyone interested in this subject should read, “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson.  Here is a book review highlighting the fact that government interference and regulations is what has damaged the shipping industry.


    “Free marketeers reading the news these days cannot help but feel depressed. Media reports would lead us to believe that entrepreneurs are exploiters, that global trade hurts rather than helps people in America—in short, that capitalism has failed and that only the “change” offered us by central planners can alleviate our economic woes. In this climate, Marc Levinson’s book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger provides a welcome respite and intellectual refueling for weary capitalists. It tells a suspenseful story of achievement—replete with many twists and turns and a swashbuckling American hero—that will leave you wanting to run to the nearest container port to admire with newfound appreciation the industrial machinery that impacts almost every part of our daily lives. The Box, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first sailing of a containership christened The Ideal-X, tells the story of how a seemingly mundane thing—a metal box with a wooden floor—managed to fundamentally change the world we live in.”

  • Excellent post and comments.

    Government regulations have made heavy industrial work near water expensive and too complex.

  • I appear to have pilfered the title of a much more robust — and more aptly titled — post from last year by LCDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, USN. It is worth revisiting: https://blog.usni.org/2011/02/14/hh104-wwatmd…/ . LCDR Armstrong’s post highlighted Mahan’s emphasis on the importance of understanding history (“The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice”) — and that is pretty much impossible to forget when hanging out with URR. The point was also raised during a panel discussion here at West 2012 on China where VADM John Bird, USN (currently Director, Navy Staff with a slew of Pacific assignments and commands under his belt) made the observation that as Americans, we have a tendency to forget history, but this is most certainly something the Chinese and other East Asian cultures do not forget. And VADM Ann Rondeau, USN (President of the National Defense University) quickly follow with the observation that there are now more Mahan scholars in China than there are in the United States.

  • ShawnP

    First key to getting shipbuilding back is to cut NAVSEA out of the loop. NAVSEA has proven itself to be inept at art of managing and actually creating warships. Navy-Shipyards should be the Chain Of Command. NAVSEA has foisted LPD-17’s, LHD-8’s, LCS’s, DD-21’s upon the Navy over the last decade. Each class of ship is either late,seriously underbuilt or frankly a death trap (read LPD-17’s Insurv reports……Live friggin cable runs in a berthing). Decomm NAVSEA and watch shipbuilding suddenly improve.

  • RickWilmes

    I wonder how many Mahan scholars have read Isabel’s Paterson’s “God of the Machine” and her interesting analysis of Mahan’s theory on the influence of sea power upon history?  Maybe it is history that has influenced sea power.  As Paterson points out on p. 7

    “He might as well have called his book the influence of history upon sea-power.  Undoubtedly things would be different if they were different.  Especially if sea-power, a superior navy commanding main trade routes from impregnable bases, were necessarily decisive, Hannibal would never have been compelled to his Alpine detour, and Carthage must have won. Rather, by that criterion, Carthage should have won a generation earlier.  Instead, “with the strongest fleet on the seas, and with a naval experience gained through centuries, the Carthaginian admirals lost six out of seven of the naval battles…”


  • Total

    @Rickwilmes: Strange, you must have read a much different Levinson book, one which didn’t point out how much government investment in harbor facilities helped created the shipping revolution.

    As to the original post, I note that the United States maritime industry has been on a downward slide since it was decimated by Confederate raiders during the Civil War, and yet strangely that same period has been the time of American naval growth and eventual predominance.

  • RickWilmes


    Are you referring to Chapter 10: Ports in a Storm?

    Where Levinson points out:

    “The waterfronts that had once been vital to local economies fell into decay as the ships stopped coming. Docks were abandoned, warehouses bricked up. Over the thirteen years from 1945 to 1957, total investment on construction and modernization at all North American ports outside New York came to a meager $40 million a year.” (p. 189-190)


    “The new economic reality was grasped first by the ports along America’s West Coast.”

    If so, than I am not sure what is your point.

    Government or public owned ports have to raise funds or capital just like privately owned property and they usually do this through public approved bonds, taxes, or fees.  In order to survive, the ports had to make the necessary improvements to attract the new containerized ships.

    I would argue that had the ports been privately owned they would have seen the need to improve their ports sooner rather than later. 

  • John Eggleston

    The GAO did a study a couple of years ago that addressed these issues and more. Found it very insightful.



  • Bruce James

    The problems faced in Naval shipbuilding are not new, nor is the rapidly accelerating cost of naval vessels and/or slippage in quality, any different than procurement issues involving weapons over the past 100 years. The initial problem begins at the requirements stage. Every program office (and manufacturer), whether it be weapons, detection and communications, etc., want to justify their existence by fighting to shape a new vessel’s requirements to include their program. Soon, the ship (or aircraft) becomes overly heavy because the platform has become overloaded. My Dad, an Air Force pilot for 31 years, recalled how in the 1950s that service “ruined” the British Canberra bomber by overloading it with new avionics desired not by the pilots, but by various Pentagon and Wright-Patterson AFB bureaucrats. The Navy is experiencing this kind of proliferation now with the DDG 1000 which, at 14,500 tons, the Navy has the gaul to call a “destroyer” rather than a battle cruiser. In the Rickover era, the requirement that submarines have bigger and better reactors caused our nuclear submarines to grow so big no one can, in good faith, call them “boats” anymore. Meanwhile, other fleets are doing just fine using smaller and quieter air-independent submarines. Ultimately, requirements must be based on the Navy’s long-term strategic missions and its best estimate of the force strength and composition necessary to do the job. If the cost of building a fleet for that mission is too expensive, the Government will either have to reevaluate the mission statement, or come up with more money, somehow.
    Now, do you really want to blow up NAVSEA? Consider what has gone on in the Coast Guard. As I understand it, and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if wrong, the Coasties gave the contractors design authority without sufficient oversight and were delivered ships that will not be able to perform more than 25 years, as opposed to the requirement of 35 years.