Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello…a weekly podcast looking at naval and maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world. This week… we are just back from a visit to some of the key shipyards on the US Gulf Coast – and what we saw was truly eye-opening. No one we visited is standing pat, all are investing in significant upgrades. We’ll talk about the trip in detail with our traveling partner, Sam LaGrone of USNI News.
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This Week’s Naval Round Up:
The very high level of Chinese military activity around Taiwan which has been continuing for some weeks seems to be declining after hitting a high just before, during and after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 3. The demonstrations included dozens of warship and many aircraft violations of Taiwan’s air and sea identification zones, Taiwan officials said, as well as the launch of at least 11 ballistic missiles into waters near the island nation. The period featured a number of ship-to-ship and plane-to-plane close encounters between Chinese and Taiwanese ships and aircraft. Meanwhile, the USS RONALD REAGAN Carrier Strike Group and USS TRIPOLI assault ship continue operating at sea in the Western Pacific.
The USS GEORGE H W BUSH Carrier Strike Group deployed from the US east coast this past week. Carrier Air Wing Seven is aboard the BUSH, who left Norfolk on August 10. Cruiser LEYTE GULF is with the BUSH, along with destroyers NITZE, FARRAGUT, TRUXTUN and DELBERT D. BLACK, the latter ship making her first deployment. BUSH is expected to relieve the carrier HARRY S TRUMAN now on station in the Mediterranean Sea.
The USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN Carrier Strike Group returned to its bases on the US West Coast this week, with the carrier tying up at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego August 11 after an 8-month deployment with Carrier Air Wing 9 embarked. Abe and the rest of the strike group concluded the cruise by taking part in RIMPAC exercises near Hawaii from late June to early August. The cruiser MOBILE BAY and destroyers FITZGERALD, GRIDLEY, SAMPSON and SPRUANCE rounded out the Lincoln strike group.
The US Coast Guard medium endurance cutter MOHAWK arrived at Abidjan, Cote d’Ivorie Aug. 12 for a port visit. The Portsmouth, Virginia-based cutter is on a US Naval Forces Africa deployment that began in June.
Capacity capacity capacity. One hears a lot about capacity when discussing the size of the Navy. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday repeatedly cites the lack of industrial capacity as a significant limiting factor in building a larger fleet. “Nobody likes the numbers with respect to capacity,” he said during one of his recent public appearances, where he often adds that he can’t ask for a navy bigger than can be sustained.
That last part is true, but if we saw anything during our Gulf coast shipyard tour, we saw capacity, especially at the biggest shipyards on the coast, Ingalls Shipbuilding and Austal USA. Both yards are eager for more business, and both are positioning themselves not just for new construction but also to take on significantly more ship repair work.
We should make clear that neither Ingalls nor Austal made comments to contradict the CNO’s statements about limited capacity. Neither yard wants to antagonize their primary customer, the US Navy. But we can say it, based on what we saw and heard. The capacity is there should the Navy and Congress choose to use it.
Talking about capacity in broad strokes is usually misleading. For one thing, every shipyard is unique – while they’re engaged in the same business, they all deal with local politics, local workforce issues, local infrastructure, and very importantly local geography. What’s true at Austal is not necessarily the case at General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego, or HII’s vast Newport News shipyard, or at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin. The same with repair yards – BAE Systems Norfolk is not Vigor in Seattle, nor Fincantieri’s Marine Repair yard in Jacksonville, Florida, or Detyens in South Carolina. Some of those yards are jammed with work, others have facilities working below capacity.
There is more, of course, to shipbuilding than just space and facilities to build ships. There are key questions about workforce issues and supply chain problems. But those issues affect just about everybody — not just in the United States but globally. And again, it depends on what yard and what ship design you’re talking about.
A key example of the difference between yards is to compare GD’s Bath Iron Works yard in Maine and Ingalls in Pascagoula. BIW – home of the “Bath Built is Best Built” slogan – is working itself out from under a mountain of largely self-caused difficulties, and while the yard carried out major facilities improvements in the early 2000s it is currently behind on all its destroyer contracts – notwithstanding the significant delays throughout industry caused by the pandemic. Ingalls is moving in the opposite direction, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the Mississippi shipyard can build twice as many destroyers as its competitor in Maine.
Such a situation does not sit well with the Maine and other New England delegations in Congress, who would rather see destroyer contracts awarded between the yards on an equal basis. But sorry, the truth is each yard’s current capacity is vastly different. The Navy – and Congress — can restrict themselves to political restrictions or move more aggressively to exploit current capacity realities. What it really comes down to is, do you want to fight China with one hand tied behind your back – or not?
This is not a case of “build it, and they will come.” It’s much more of a case of order it, pay for it, and industry will size itself to build it.