In Congress, Trump shipbuilding plan takes on water

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

President Donald Trump's call for a larger Navy was not matched in the budget he proposed Tuesday and shows "a high degree of naiveté in the area of ship construction," Rep. Rob Wittman said Wednesday.

In a forceful opening statement to begin a hearing on the Navy's budget request, the Northumberland Republican said, "the call to duty has not been sounded. It is time to get serious and match our peer competitors with aggressive ship construction initiatives."

Wittman chairs the House Armed Services sea power panel, which makes him a key player in funding for shipbuilding and ship repair, an important industry in Hampton Roads.

Earlier in the day, representatives of the shipbuilding industry — including a top official from Huntington Ingalls Industries — told a Senate panel that Congress could do more to help shipyards and their suppliers get off to a faster start. They suggested multi-ship purchases, advance ordering and faster security clearances for new shipyard workers.

Brian Cuccias, president of Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., stressed the importance of maintaining "hot" production lines and the setbacks that can result from an on-again, off-again production schedule.

"When a production line is stopped and subsequently restarted, we traditionally experience significant cost as a result of loss of shipbuilder learning," Cuccias said.

Wittman sounded a similar theme in his opening statement on Trump's budget request, which essentially delays the start of the fleet buildup until 2019.

"Some believe that ship construction is like a spigot that can be turned on and off," he said. "I believe that there are those in defense budgeting that advocate for such an approach. In ship construction, we know one thing for certain: Ship construction is a long game and requires steady funding to achieve steady progress."

The budget request calls for eight new vessels, including two Virginia-class submarines for $5.5 billion and another $4.6 billion for the USS Enterprise. Both represent business for Newport News Shipbuilding. But those increases were included in former President Barack Obama's plan, according to published reports.

The budget also keeps aircraft carrier production at five-year intervals. Supporters of a larger carrier fleet want four- or three-year intervals.

Navy officials say the budget prioritizes maintenance and training, which have been stretched thin after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and rising threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The budget maintains the operational effectiveness of our current force, while also building a bridge to growing the future force, starting in 2019," said Allison Stiller, a Navy official who testified before Wittman's panel.

But the disappointment was palpable among both Republicans and Democrats who advocate for a larger fleet.

Joe Courtney, D-Conn., represents a district that includes General Dynamics Electric Boat, which builds Navy submarines in partnership with the Newport News shipyard.

"The Trump administration has proposed a 300-ship budget for a 355-ship plan," he said. "This proposal really begs the question: What is the administration waiting for?"

According to published reports, other influential lawmakers have dismissed the plan as a nonstarter, including Sen. John McCain and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The Trump budget comes on the heels of a white paper issued last week by the Navy's top admiral that sounded a tone of urgency in ramping up the fleet to deal with rising threats like Russia and China.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson wrote that "our focus cannot be on some distant goal. The Navy must get to work now to both build more ships, and to think forward — innovate — as we go. To remain competitive, we must start today and we must improve faster."

Before Wittman's panel met in the afternoon, a morning Senate hearing featured Cuccias along with John Casey, General Dynamics' executive vice president of marine systems, and Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America.

During 90 minutes of give-and-take, several broad themes emerged:

•The lack of skilled labor is a concern. Developing a new generation of workers in the shipbuilding trades is a challenge to large shipyards and the small- to medium-sized businesses that supply products and services.

•Congress can change its funding and purchasing practices to help the industry. Buying multiple ships at a time and authorizing purchases of materials in advance would provide certainty to the industrial base, allowing shipyards to invest with confidence in infrastructure and hire more more workers. Congress also must end the controversial practice of automatic budget cuts known as a sequestration, the representatives said.

•To expand from the current fleet of 275 ships to a goal of 355 requires starting sooner rather than later. Casey implored Congress to have a sense of urgency.

"If there is going to be 355 ships, we believe efforts need to start immediately, like in fiscal year 2018, not in '19, not in '20," he said.

Congress also must set a deadline for reaching that goal, "which makes a big difference in terms of the capacity that's required," he said.

Sen. Angus King, I-Me., represents the home state of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, which builds destroyers. He also expressed concern about the workforce, saying that company is dealing with many older employees who are at or near retirement. He suspected the problem was the same elsewhere, which amplifies to the need of a new generation of shipbuilding labor.

Cuccias said smaller suppliers and vendors generally have the infrastructure to meet growing needs. Skilled labor was another matter.

"The talent does not exist in terms of hiring up," he said.

Paxton agreed, saying that "industry-wise, the single biggest challenge is going to be workforce development."

Sen. Tim Kaine spoke about the value of The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding, which turns out skilled workers and has an admission rate that rivals that of Ivy League schools.

Kaine said one of his goals is a rewrite of higher education legislation that recognizes the value of career and technical education. Besides his seat on Armed Services, Kaine is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where he will tackle that issue.

The concern about workforce development and skilled training prompted Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to bring up another section of Trump's budget that concerned him.

"I want to ... sort of mention the elephant in the room," he said. "We see a 10 percent increase in our defense budget and a cut — a cut — in skill training funding in the Labor Department."

Shipbuilders and other skilled workers in the defense industrial base "are as essential to our national security as the men and women who serve."

Casey and Cuccias also stressed the advantage of multiple-ship purchases and advance ordering, so supplies are in hand when work begins.

That foresight, Cuccias said, would increase stability across the industry and possibly draw more suppliers into the industrial base. Taxpayers would realize savings because vendors could plan ahead and operate more efficiently.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., agreed with that assessment.

"What you need," he said, "is the certainty out of this institution that what we say this year is what we mean next year."

Trump's entire budget request, which includes the shipbuilding money, will be further dissected by the House and Senate, and alternative plans will be proposed.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821

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