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Wicker: Countering China requires more ships and faster repairs

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a plan to equip the U.S. Navy with the ships we need to stay competitive with China and other adversaries. As a longtime advocate for a bigger Navy, I was delighted with the goals he outlined. His proposal calls for 500 manned and unmanned ships by the year 2045.

This goal builds on the progress we have made since Congress passed my legislation in 2017 requiring 355 ships as soon as practicable. The Navy’s newest ships will carry improved missile and sensor technology cost less to build and maintain, and require fewer sailors to operate.

Most encouragingly, Secretary Esper began a department-wide effort to find savings to put toward these ships. He is asking Congress for as much as an 18 percent boost to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. This would bring spending on ships to a level not seen since President Ronald Reagan.

I wholeheartedly welcome this funding goal, but the details of how the money is spent will be critical. I look forward to working with the Navy to ensure we purchase the right combination of ships, including those built in Mississippi.

Military should invest in proven technologies

Our future fleet needs to rely on proven technology. New unmanned ships show great promise, but they have a long way to go before they are battle-ready. A shift to these new technologies too quickly could result in production delays and higher costs. They should be integrated carefully and gradually and should not displace the tried and true core of our naval fleet.

Mississippi shipbuilders have led the nation in building these ships, which include guided-missile destroyers and amphibious warships. I am working to ensure these vessels remain a core priority in future Navy purchases.

With a larger fleet, the Navy will also need expanded maintenance capacities. The Navy already faces significant maintenance delays, which pose a danger to sailors and result in fewer ships being deployed. Because of delays, the Navy requires a minimum of 11 aircraft carriers to keep just three carriers active at all times. I hope the Navy considers options to reduce the maintenance backlog, such as bundling ship maintenance contracts and working with industry to establish clear expectations for work.

Strengthening our industrial base

To reach the Secretary’s 500-ship goal, we will also need a strong and stable industrial base. I have worked for years to deliver more resources to our shipyards, but there is more progress to be made.

The Department of Defense and Congress need to give shipbuilders earlier notice on contracts and guarantee production rates for major classes of ships, such as destroyers and aircraft carriers. Military leaders should make more use of block buys to purchase several ships at a time.

These changes would allow shipyards to save money, reduce the time it takes to build ships and keep more workers on the payroll.

Although we are now entering an economic recovery, COVID-19 continues to have a disruptive effect on businesses — including defense manufacturers. These businesses face production delays and financial uncertainty, threatening our economy as well as our national security.

I have proposed new relief to help these manufacturers retain their workforce, which I hope the Senate will pass as part of a larger relief package. We cannot overlook this vital sector of our economy as we work toward a nationwide recovery.