Colombia. Bosnia. The Middle East. Africa. The U.S. government’s military support and presence continues to expand.
This increase in missions, coupled with a decrease in Navy ships, is putting a strain on America’s sea power, threatening our national and economic security, according to defense experts.
The problem, they say, is more and more Navy ships require extensive maintenance and repairs, for which there is a decreasing amount of funds.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a fiscal 2000 Emergency Supplemental Act, which includes $220 million to meet the Navy’s ship maintenance shortfall.
The bill, which now goes before the Senate, also includes $2.1 billion to replenish accounts drained by the Kosovo mission, $2.3 billion for increased military fuel and health care costs, $1.7 billion to help the Colombian government fight that country’s drug war, and $2.2 billion to provide disaster assistance to families and businesses affected by recent hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The original fiscal 2000 defense budget set aside $2.4 billion for ship depot maintenance. That money, which was supposed to last until September, was spent by February.
& #356; Surplus Is Only
A Temporary Fix
Defense experts say the extra $220 million will only temporarily fix the problem, one that has been surging for several years.
One reason for the lack of funding for ship repair and maintenance is a lack of a contingency plan for unexpected events, said Al Krekich, a retired Navy vice admiral who is now president and chief operating officer of Virginia-based United States Marine Repair, Inc., which owns Southwest Marine, Inc. in San Diego as well as other shipyards across the country.
“You put aside so much money of your pay in case something breaks, like your car. There is no such thing in defense as a contingency budget,” he said. “So if you decide to fund a Kosovo, you take some money out of other pots to do that. What’s been happening over the years is (ship) maintenance is getting backlogged.
“At some point, the Navy may not be able to answer the bell,” said Krekich, former commander of the Navy’s surface forces for the U.S. Pacific Fleet in San Diego. “That’s not what any of us want. Not this former sailor. The Navy leadership itself is trying to come to grips with that.”
Krekich said while the current supplemental bill is only a temporary fix, the emergency funding is crucial not only for America’s shipyards but also for protecting national security.
“Hopefully, the Senate will see the wisdom of supporting national security issues,” he said. “There’s not a week that goes by that some event in the world doesn’t involve the U.S. Navy. Every ship counts. Every ship has to be ready.”
& #356; Ships Kept Past
Their Operating Life
The reason why the Navy is keeping its ships past their operating life is because not enough ships are being built to replace existing ones, said Cynthia Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association in Washington, D.C. “When you don’t build enough ships to maintain an adequate Navy, everything suffers,” she said.
The Navy has been building six ships per year since 1994. However, the Navy contends it needs to build 10 ships a year to maintain a 300-ship Navy, the minimum requirement to sustain a viable sea power.
The reduced number of Navy ships being built and the lack of adequate funding for ship repair and maintenance could also sink America’s economic security, said Frank Collins, senior vice president of United States Marine Repair, the country’s largest non-nuclear ship repair company.
“The connection people don’t make, given our current prosperity and our military, is we’re the last superpower in the world,” Collins said. “That’s because we are strong and because we have a Navy that goes all over the world. That enables us to enjoy a lot of the prosperity we have and to go all over the world to market our goods and services.”
Besides national and economic security and military readiness, United States Marine Repair executives worry about something else , jobs along the waterfront.
& #356; Repair Company
United States Marine Repair plans to lay off about 450 workers in the next six weeks at its Virginia-based Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corp. The company plans to do the same at Southwest Marine in early summer.
“The Navy counts on us to fix the ships. If all of a sudden they yank out because they don’t have enough money, we have to lay off people,” Krekich explained. “Then you lose the industrial capacity for the nation.”
Collins said the average age of the shipyard worker is increasing because many young people are going into more stable, less physical labor-intensive industries such as high-tech. He also said some shipyard workers, who are used to being laid off temporarily, sometimes seek other jobs for more stability.
“When you get laid off for three or four months, suddenly you go and find a different job where you work indoors and the pay’s not bad. Why would you want to come back to this shipyard industry which is hard labor?”
– Shipyards Provide
Jobs For Workers
Collins contends shipyard jobs are good-paying jobs, with the average Southwest Marine worker earning $15 an hour.
“When you read every day that there’s a new billionaire, it starts to devalue the work the average person does,” he said. “As a nation we need jobs like this. Not everybody goes to college and not everybody goes the professional route. We still need to be able to manufacture and maintain things as a nation.”
Southwest Marine is not the only San Diego shipyard that may lay off workers come summer.
“The lack of funding is causing the (Navy) commanders to look at having to cancel planned ship availabilities for the summer months,” said Jim Scott, vice president of marketing and business affairs of National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. and president of the San Diego Ship Repair Association.
Scott said NASSCO has already planned for potential minor layoffs for this summer. But if the supplemental bill doesn’t pass, there could be a loss of more than 1,000 jobs across the entire San Diego waterfront, he said.
– Employees Increase
During Busy Season
Meanwhile, Continental Maritime Services, which is owned by Virginia-based Newport News Shipbuilding, currently has 550 employees, up from 150 in December.
“In December, it was the worst it has ever been,” said David McQueary, Continental’s president and CEO. “The Navy canceled several ship (repair jobs) at the end of the year.”
While this is a busy time for Continental, McQueary said this is still a very unstable industry.
“Stability and predictability are two things any business needs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how capable you are if you don’t have any ship repair funding.”
Some of the ships the Navy is operating are more than 30 years old, said Capt. Robert Smith, commanding officer of the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center at Naval Station San Diego, home to 45 Navy ships.
“Maintaining the older ships is the biggest problem I have on the local waterfront,” he said.
– National Security
Not Yet Affected
Although Smith acknowledged more funding is needed for ship repair and maintenance, he said it hasn’t affected national security , yet.
“We are meeting all of our deployments. However, as those deployment requirements stay at a very high level, a reduced number of ships requires we do more maintenance to keep them ready. Without some relief in the future, it’s going to be much harder.”
Smith also voiced concern over ships currently undergoing maintenance being needed in case of a crisis.
“If we were called upon for an emergency, such as something like the Persian Gulf War, we would have to work hard, fast and very expensively to get those (ships) ready for short term,” he said.
– Repairs May
Although Smith is hopeful the supplemental bill will pass, he said if it takes too long, several ships may go without repairs this year.
“The problem I face is, the later in the fiscal year I get that money, the harder it will be to spend wisely. Those ships may not be available come July or August when I get the money.
“In the longer term, it’s a very inefficient way to do maintenance because you can’t plan maintenance schedules,” Smith said.
U.S. Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Escondido, who was instrumental in getting the emergency ship maintenance funding, is confident his colleagues in the Senate will pass the supplemental bill soon.
“I think more and more people are starting to acknowledge that we really do have a national emergency when it comes to national security,” Cunningham said.