Guest: The SHIPYARD Act will help South Alabama
A bipartisan bill in Washington could bring a welcome influx of cash and resources to South Alabama’s shipbuilding industry. Senators and representatives from Mississippi, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin have introduced the Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards, and America’s Repair Docks (SHIPYARD) Act, which would appropriate $25 billion toward shipyard infrastructure improvements (you can always count on Congress to fit a tongue-tying, mouthful of a bill title into a catchy acronym).
While the lion’s share of the dollars would go to public shipyards outside of Alabama, $4 billion is reserved for work at private new construction and repair shipyards. Austal’s shipyard in Mobile and the Ingalls facility in Mississippi — which employs scores of Alabamians — fall into both of those categories.
The measure comes amid efforts within Congress and the Pentagon to grow the U.S. Navy as a response to the growth of China’s military power. In 2020, the U.S. Navy released its 30-year shipbuilding plan, which aims to grow its current fleet of fewer than 300 ships to a whopping 546 ships by 2050. Doing so will require an estimated $25.6 billion per year over that period.
While that growth seems sharp and expensive, for Washington seapower advocates, the Navy cannot grow fast enough. In 2017, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, a bill stating that established a U.S. policy to achieve a 355-ship Navy. Under the Navy’s plan, the U.S. will not hit that mark until the mid-2030s.
As the Navy and Congress seek an increased fleet, private and public shipyards will need to grow their footprints to keep up with the demand. In late March, Austal, one of only seven private new construction shipyards in the U.S., took a major step towards increasing output by breaking ground on a production line for steel-hulled ships. The new line will enable Austal to compete for more Navy contracts, as Austal currently is only able to build aluminum-hulled ships.
The SHIPYARD Act, according to a white paper released by the bill’s sponsors, would subsidize efforts like Austal’s production line expansion, calling private shipyards the “lifeblood of our Navy.”
For nearly two decades, Austal has been providing the Navy with small surface combatant ships, namely the littoral combat ship (LCS). While the LCS program has faced harsh criticism for cost overruns and underperformance, most problematic LCS platforms originate from the Marinette Marine facility in Wisconsin, which produces a separate variant of the LCS.
During a late April hearing on Capitol Hill, the Navy’s leadership, Admiral Mike Gilday and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker, praised the performance of Austal-built LCS platforms conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South Pacific and counter narcotics missions Latin America. Gilday also testified that the Navy plans to further invest in the operational LCS fleet by outfitting the ships with Naval Strike Missiles. The move will add needed firepower to ships at the forefront of the U.S. effort to combat increasing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
So, what is next for the SHIPYARD Act?
Most of the bill’s key sponsors, including U.S. Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), are all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its Subcommittee on Seapower. While they will likely work to get some policy provisions of the bill into the committee’s upcoming mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act, the committee and NDAA can only authorize spending rather than actually appropriate dollars.
For appropriations, the bill will need approval of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the ranking Republican; he is also the top Republican on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Defense. Shelby has been a champion for South Alabama’s shipbuilding industry, overseeing appropriations for 20 Austal-built LCS and 15 Expeditionary Fast Transports ships, another platform produced by Austal for the Navy. Shelby has announced that he will retire at the end of his current term but will assuredly be laser-focused on supporting Alabama’s defense industry until his final day in office.
While no Alabama representatives are initial sponsors or cosponsors of the SHIPYARD Act, there will be plenty of opportunities for Shelby, along with U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Representative Jerry Carl (AL-01), Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Representative Mike Rogers (AL-03), to support the bill. Tuberville, Carl and Rogers all sit on the Armed Services Committee of their respective chambers, with Rogers serving as the lead House Republican on Armed Services; meanwhile, Aderholt is a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Defense.
Additionally, Representative Mo Brooks (AL-05), who is widely viewed as the current front-runner to replace Shelby in the Senate, also sits on the House Armed Services Committee and will be seeking the support of South Alabamians, including from Austal and Ingalls workers, for his campaign.
Outside of the defense committees, Congress is preparing to debate and consider President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, pitched as a move to overhaul U.S. infrastructure. SHIPYARD Act supporters are certain to push for the bill to be included in the legislation, arguing doing so would enable the economic and national security benefits of growing U.S. shipbuilding infrastructure.
Regardless of the vehicle for advancing the SHIPYARD Act, movement of a measure to assist U.S. shipyards is welcome news for the industry. While this bill alone will not be enough to ensure shipyards are ready to build the 355-ship navy, it shows that lawmakers on Capitol Hill are aware of the issue and want to act on it. And, as anyone who has worked in Washington can tell you, getting an issue on the table for discussion can be half the battle.
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 currently works in business development at a software company in Washington, D.C., focusing on the company’s intelligence community and defense work. He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.