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Wicker: Shipyard infrastructure needs a boost from Congress

Lawmakers in Washington are debating what to include in an upcoming infrastructure bill. Missing from the conversation thus far are the serious infrastructure needs facing America’s shipyards.

These facilities are shouldering more and more of our national security burden as our nation looks to compete with China and Russia. Lawmakers and Navy leaders have long recognized the need to strengthen our shipbuilding and repair facilities. Now is the time to turn that consensus into action.

Congress has already taken the important step of committing to a 355-ship Navy. But setting this goal is not the same as providing the means necessary to achieve it. Our shipyards in their current state are having trouble servicing our existing fleet of 296 ships, let alone the fleet we need to compete with our adversaries.

The Navy’s four public shipyards — located in Hawaii, Washington state, Maine and Virginia — are responsible for servicing our nuclear fleet of aircraft carriers and submarines. Each of these facilities is more than a century old and in desperate need of modernization. A shortage of functional dry docks and aging equipment has caused long maintenance delays, resulting in fewer deployment-ready warships being available for Navy operations. This status quo has kept us from achieving our fleet goals in a timely manner and allowed China to begin challenging American supremacy at sea.

China has become our No. 1 strategic rival and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Although our military enjoys technological advantages, China’s Navy has eclipsed ours in terms of sheer size, reaching 350 ships. China has achieved this massive naval force by dramatically expanding its shipbuilding and maintenance base, with more than 1,000 shipyards now supporting its sprawling fleet. The United States has significant ground to make up.

The Navy has been doing the best it can with the resources at its disposal. In 2018, the Navy released its Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, a detailed, $21 billion plan for revitalizing our public shipyards over a 20-year period. Twenty years, however, is not fast enough to meet our pressing security needs.

To help speed up this process, this week I introduced the Shipyard Act to invest directly in the Navy’s shipyard modernization plan. My bill would provide a total of $25 billion to improve shipyard infrastructure, including $21 billion for public shipyards, $2 billion for private construction yards and another $2 billion for private repair yards.

These funds would be appropriated under the Defense Production Act, which means the funding would not expire at the end of a fiscal year. This would give the Navy the flexibility it needs to ramp up operations on the most efficient timeline possible.

There is broad bipartisan consensus that we need to expand our shipyard capacity. Shipyards are the source of all naval strength and are playing an increasingly pivotal role in the global balance of power. As Congress considers what infrastructure priorities will advance our nation’s well-being and security, shipyards should be near the top of the list.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.