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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) It is a well known paradox … prepare for massive maritime warfare with heavily armed surface ships, long-range weapons and layered defenses .. to keep the peace. Thus, the conceptual basis for deterrence, a strategic approach grounded in the idea of strengthening military power for the ultimate purpose of preventing conflict on the open ocean. 

With this in mind, the Navy is taking new strides in its ongoing, multi-year ambition to build a larger, stronger, more heavily armed and distributed surface fleet, in part by potentially migrating some of its shipbuilding initiatives away from large surface vessels .. and more toward a smaller agile fleet. Concurrently, the service is also moving at an ambitious pace to add greater numbers of larger-platform warships to include amphibs, destroyers and Frigates, among others. With projections of a desired fleet upwards of 400-500 ships, the Navy is pursuing efforts to transition to more steel building materials and substantially rev up shipyard production capacity throughout the industrial base

Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the hill are seeking the same thing through a new legislative proposal to add billions in new funding for U.S. shipyards.  Representatives Rob Wittman (R-VA-01) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI-08), along with Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Angus King (I-ME) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards, and America’s Repair Docks (SHIPYARD) Act of 2021, which would provide $25 billion to make investments needed to optimize, improve, and rebuild shipyard facilities, electrical infrastructure, environmental systems, and the equipment of public and private shipyards in the U.S. that support the U.S. Navy fleet. 

Austal USA just announced its investing more than $100M to add steel shipbuilding capability to its facility in Alabama to adjust to the changing demand.

“Our intent is to build what the Navy needs. We’re taking our proven processes that have led to consistent on-time on-budget delivery and building them into a new steel line,” Larry Ryder, Austal USA’s vice president of business development and external affairs told The National Interest in an interview. “In April 2022, we’ll be cutting steel with the goal to support the Coast Guard’s and Navy’s call for steel ships.”

The urgency of improving the combat readiness and capability of manned surface ships, particularly in light of the increasing capacity with which they will operate unmanned systems such as surface, undersea and aerial drones, is not lost on members of Congress now deliberating fleet size and configuration questions with a specific mind to concerns about the Chinese Navy. Building more new ships out of steel appears to be an integral part of this effort. 

“Fleet size considerations need to examine a combination of capacity and capability. So it's two factors. It's not only quantity, but its quality. You know, for years, we looked at the Chinese and said ‘they got quantity, but they don't have quality.’ Well, let me tell you, the Chinese have quality now,” Rep. Rob Wittman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told The National Interest in an interview.

Austal USA, which constructs the Littoral Combat Ship Independence variant and Expeditionary Fast Transport-maker is one of several prominent shipbuilders planning to help “lead the resurgence” back to steel. 

“The key is that we are not losing the aluminum capability. By adding steel we will extend our position. We are a lean, modular manufacturing facility and have the ability to build both steel and aluminum. We have the capacity in our shipyard now to support the growth of  the Navy and Coast Guard fleets,” Ryder explained.  

Austal USA’s move to incorporate steel materials for ship construction is intended to address several emerging Navy interests being pursued for some of its new programs such as the now-in-development Light Amphibious Warship, Frigate follow-yard and Coast Guard Off-Shore Patrol Cutter. 

“The Navy sets the requirements and our focus is meeting those requirements with the best possible solution.  We will now be able to meet those requirements with either a steel or an aluminum solution.  We want to build the solution that the Navy wants,” Ryder said. 

Ryder’s point is consistent with the sentiments expressed by the proposed legislation which appears to be a clear response to the Navy’s growing need to add more warships at a much faster pace as well as use properly supplied existing and new shipyards. Austal’s move, something likely mirrored by other shipbuilders as well, seems to anticipate this. 

 “Our shipyards’ aging infrastructure fails to provide the capacity, configurations, or equipment necessary to maintain fleet readiness. These factors have not only resulted in a maintenance backlog amongst our current ships but has left us ill-prepared to grow our Navy to keep pace with China,” Wittman said in a statement. 

America class amphibious assault ships, Ford-class carriers, Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Constellation-class Frigates and Virginia-class submarines are all being added to the U.S. Navy fleet in high numbers and at an ambitious pace. These growing areas of Navy shipbuilding focus, which include a massive addition of new large, medium and small ships and ocean drones, comprise vital elements of the fleet’s surge toward a 400-to-500 ship fleet. 

The Navy’s 30-yearshipbuilding plan outlines an ambitious and fast-moving plan to double the number of amphibious assault ships to 62 by 2050, increase the yearly construction of attack submarines, add as many as 10 new destroyers and, among other things, fund as many as 15 new Frigates over just the next five years. For instance, the shipbuilding document says the Navy plans to make "investments in FY2022 in long lead time material and the stand up of a ‘follow yard’ in FY2023 to increase FFG production to three ships in 2023 and up to four new frigates by 2025."

The Navy plan to accelerate and uptick Frigate, amphib and destroyer production seems to parallel a commensurate Navy need for more steel ship construction, given that the concept of operation for the ship is to expand “blue water” or “open ocean” warfare capability. 

"The FFG(X) small surface combatant will expand blue force sensor and weapon influence to provide increased information to the overall fleet tactical picture while challenging adversary intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking (ISRT) efforts," previously released Naval Sea Systems Command FFG(X) documents said.

Austal USA, maker of the Independence variant of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, has been making efforts to anticipate the Navy’s push for more shipbuilding and heavier steel materials to build new warships by moving to steel production at its Alabama facility. Austal’s  move to introduce steel ship production, which includes a $100 million investment, is part of a coordinated effort with the Navy to convert half of its aluminum manufacturing to steel production. 

“We built the shipyard up from nothing and cornered the market on large aluminum ships. Since then the Navy has changed and China has emerged as a legitimate threat in the maritime domain. We have a great process so we thought ‘let’s do the same thing with steel. We went out and worked with DoD and came up with a plan to add steel to our facility here,” Larry Ryder, Austal USA’s vice president of business development and external affairs told The National Interest in an interview.

Austal’s initiative, which includes a move to invest more than $100 million into bringing steel production to its Alabama shipyard, is the kind of effort which seems entirely aligned with a new Congressional proposal to add as much as $25 billion in new funding to U.S. shipyards and its shipbuilding enterprise.

The Secretary of the Navy wants more shipyard infrastructure, construction of new dry docks and major investments in U.S. shipyards to move quickly toward its ambitious, yet realistic goal of reaching a 500-ship fleet … and Congress wants to help.

“The legislation would help to address a backlog of identified modernization, maintenance, and expansion projects at public shipyards and provide the Navy needed flexibility to support capital improvement projects and other investments at yards critical to maintaining and growing the fleet,” a statement from Wittman’s office reads.

The proposal, which includes backing from prominent Democrats such as Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, is called America’s Repair Docks (SHIPYARD) Act of 2021. The proposed legislation not only calls for the rebuilding of existing shipyards but specifically designates $21 billion for the Navy’s four public shipyards in Virginia, Maine, Hawaii, and Washington, $2 billion for major new construction of private shipyards, and $2 billion to repair the Navy’s private shipyards.

“Congress has already taken the important step of committing to a larger Navy, but our shipyards are having trouble servicing today’s 296-ship fleet and are clearly insufficient to maintain the 355-ship or larger fleet we need to counter China, Russia, and other adversaries. Now is the time to provide our Navy leaders the support they need to grow and preserve our fleet for generations to come,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), one of the lawmakers supporting the proposed legislation, said in a statement.

Several major U.S. shipbuilders, such as Littoral Combat Ship Independence variant builder Austal USA, are making decided efforts to invest in and anticipate the Navy’s current need for new warships. Austal has, for instance, undertaken a move to migrate as much as one half of its aluminum production to steel ship construction materials. Austal USA’s initiative, which incorporates a $100 million investment, seems to seek alignment with the proposed Congressional aims as well as with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy, an emerging maritime warfare a concept based upon the informed and realistic premise that a modern, great-power threat environment will require a much more heavily armed surface fleet.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics&Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.