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Guest: Examining the keys to a long, robust future for Alabama’s Austal USA

Most people know that Alabama’s defense industry is a key driver of the state’s economy and major employer of Alabamians across the state. What can be less apparent is the impact that federal and state politics and polices have on the defense sector. With U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, set to retire at the end of this term, many federal, state and industry leaders are concerned that the flow of federal dollars could dry up.

The first two articles in this three-part series focused on the major challenges the Alabama congressional delegation and state leaders face to maintain North and Central Alabama’s defense sectors. This article will dive into the issues confronting Southwest Alabama, particularly the Gulf Coast’s shipbuilding industry.

The key programs that have driven the shipbuilding industry in Alabama are the Littoral Combat Ship, known as LCS, and the Expeditionary Fast Transport ship. The LCS program has been the more prominent of the two, sustaining thousands of jobs and $1.8 billion in economic impact in the Mobile area. While work continues on previously contracted ships, its builder, Austal USA, fell short in a bid to secure a contract to build the next generation of small surface combatants for the U.S. Navy. Austal will need to secure future contracts to remain afloat (pun intended).

While the LCS did face challenges, it is now a significant asset of the Navy, particularly in combatting the flow of narcotics into the United States from South America and for projecting U.S. naval power in the South China Sea. Without the advocacy and support of Shelby, former Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), former Senator Luther Strange (R-AL) and former Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-01), LCS contracts would have been reduced or the program canceled altogether. This strong coordination and advocacy is a prime example of the benefits of the Alabama delegation working together, and it will be necessary for Mobile to remain a preeminent shipbuilder for the Navy.

Following Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Representative Jerry Carl’s (AL-01) elections in 2020, both freshman officials secured vital position on the Senate and House Armed Serviced Committees, respectively. Carl also secured a position on the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, which will further position him to influence legislation governing the Navy’s shipbuilding programs. Also of note, Representative Mike Rogers (AL-03) recently assumed the top Republican role on the House Armed Services Committee, where he will command GOP policy efforts on all military issues, including shipbuilding.

To secure the future of the shipbuilding industry in South Alabama, Austal will need to remain flexible and expand its ability to meet a wider range of future Navy requirements. The company took its first step in this direction in March when it announced it would open a production line for steel ships. Previously, Austal only produced aluminum-hulled ships which limited the programs it could compete for. This new capability will help Austal compete for the Navy’s light amphibious warship program and the Coast Guard’s offshore patrol cutter programs.

Next, it will need to prepare for future Navy needs such as autonomous ships and ships survivable against powerful adversary militaries like Russia and China, in line with the Navy’s most recent shipbuilding plan and the National Defense Strategy. These documents prioritize great power competition with Russia and China over the 20-plus years of low-intensity conflict the U.S. has waged in the Middle East. According to the Navy’s shipbuilding plan, the Navy will need to dramatically increase the size and sophistication of its fleet, culminating in a 355-ship fleet by the early-to-mid 2030s. Reaching that size will require all U.S. shipyards, especially Austal, to ramp up operations.

Austal’s efforts to grow its shipbuilding capability should be complemented by Alabama congressional engagement with Navy leadership and legislative efforts. Senators and representative need to be reinforcing the vitality the Alabama shipbuilding industry provides the Navy at a time when active U.S. shipyards are at an all-time low. These policy proposals should include support for a 355-ship navy, continued support for the Jones Act which supports U.S. ship manufacturing and emphasizing continued operational need for fast and agile small surface combatant ships, which are the specialty of the shipbuilders at Austal USA.

These efforts, in tandem with those laid out in the first two articles of this series, will ensure Alabama remains a preeminent provider of capabilities to the military, intelligence community and space sectors at a time of relative uncertainly in Alabama federal politics. To be sure, there will be pains following Shelby’s retirement. Very few members of the Senate grow to be as influential as he has, and even fewer can sustain that influence for decades.

However, all is not lost. Through coordinated efforts by the veteran and rookie members of the Alabama delegation and through concerted efforts during Shelby’s final two years in office, Alabama’s defense industry can continue to thrive to the benefit of the state’s economy and America’s national security.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

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