Tags: WEST 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?