On March 18, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley told the Senate Armed Services Committee that half of the shipyards that build Navy ships are “one contract away” from becoming what he delicately called “not viable.” He named names, for example the NASSCO shipyard in San Diego. “They are in peril,” he said. Their future depends on winning a contract to build new supply ships or large deck amphibious ships.
With order for ships at about half their levels of 30 years ago, the Navy has to balance taxpayers’ legitimate interest in competition against national security’s equally compelling interest in the health of maintaining shipyards at a simmer against the distant but distinct possibility of a boil.
The Army is experiencing similar problems as sequestration and budget cuts—absent large-scale reforms that could save billions—compel former competitors to join forces to survive thus ending the benefits of competition.
The weapons that ships carry face the same problems: if insufficient numbers are purchased the Navy faces the prospect of shortages in a crisis and the departure of skilled workers who must look elsewhere when orders dry up.
The case of the Tomahawk cruise missile is a particularly good example because the spread of jihadist terror might compel a response in the foreseeable future that is far more substantial than the U.S. reaction to date. Launched primarily from ships the Tomahawk has been an effective means of delivering a highly accurate and large punch from a thousand miles away since it joined the fleet in the early Reagan administration.
The missile was first used in combat against Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991. Since then it was launched at targets during the Balkan wars of the mid- and late 1990s, against Saddam Hussein between the two Gulf Wars, and in strikes against the Taliban that followed the 911 attacks. Over 700 Tomahawks were fired against Iraqi targets when the U.S. invaded in 2003. Since 2003 the missile has been used in strikes against targets in Yemen, Libya, and most recently against ISIL.
The problem it faces is similar to the one that Assistant Secretary Stackley described. It is not identical. Ships take years to design, build, test, and commission. The disappearance of shipyards would harm American seapower like the onset of a chronic and debilitating disease—but not immediately. Tomahawk cruise missiles are an active part of the Navy’s arsenal. On average 100 have been fired in combat operations per year since the missile entered service.
For the fiscal year that begins six months from now, the Obama administration has asked Congress for money to buy 100 missiles. Combined with about another 50 to be paid for out of overseas contingency operations funds this would leave the program about 50 missiles short of what its manufacturer, Raytheon, says is needed to keep the Tomahawk production line open. That’s the similarity to the shipyard problem that Assistant Secretary Stackley described: at a certain level orders are insufficient to make production profitable.
Congress’s purchase of 50 more Tomahawks would keep the production line open and retain the many secondary and tertiary contractors at their jobs. This is important because a significant portion of the Navy’s Tomahawk inventory is due for modernization to extend their service life in the next few years. If manufacturing Tomahawks becomes untenable the U.S. will be at a loss—or at least experience a substantial delay—in starting to recertify and upgrade current missile inventories in 2019.
The Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 might have been a good time to shift investments in weapons systems to such other expenses as future research, or cut defense spending. Or after the end of World War I. We did in each case.
Today is different. Radical Islam is slaughtering people from Syria to Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula to Tunisia to central Africa—and holding territory. Iran is progressing steadily toward possessing nuclear weapons, and even more daunting prospect. Russia has seized the Crimean Peninsula and is slow-rolling its invasion of eastern Ukraine at the same time menacing the Baltic States where an invasion that NATO does not answer with force would end the 66-year old alliance. China is using its increasingly modern and growing navy to menace neighboring states. And evidence is abundant that former Obama administration secretaries of defense warnings about a hollow U.S. military were correct.
The Middle East’s descent into sectarian conflict is but one sign that the world is becoming more dangerous and unstable.
Allowing shipyards to fail or placing at risk missiles that project accurate combat power over long distances is an especially ill-timed exercise in poor judgment.