Mississippians build half the United States Navy’s ships in Pascagoula, and about half of America’s naval aviators train at Meridian. Our state has very strong and long connections to naval power, dating back to when the first French colonists set foot on the Gulf Coast. It continued as Mississippi spawned naval icons like famed World War II Admiral John S. McCain Sr. and the “father of our modern Navy,” my predecessor Senator John C. Stennis.
As a Senator who represents a maritime state, grew up in a shipbuilding town and served in Washington alongside several naval champions, I’m proud to be one of the Navy’s best friends on Capitol Hill.
A true friend speaks frankly and honestly. That’s why I’m telling the Navy to do a better job on cost estimates and cost control. Right now the Navy is making some poor decisions that are costing taxpayers too much money and putting America’s skilled shipbuilding community in jeopardy.
Americans need to take note: Our Navy is on the verge of sailing the smallest fleet we’ve had in years – less than 200 ships. That’s 40 less ships than what the Navy says we need. It’s not close to the 600-ship Navy to which President Reagan aspired.
Perhaps most alarming is that, of those 200 ships, too many will cost taxpayers double their original estimates. The Navy has become far too complacent with this.
Last year the General Accounting Office reported that the Navy was budgeting some shipbuilding programs with a 45 percent confidence level. In other words, the Navy now expects a greater than 50/50 chance that some ships will bust their budgets.
That’s why I’ve called the Navy to task. Their criticism of our shipyards and workers is basically a smoke screen to mask their own insufficient budgets and conflicting requirements.
Now there’s plenty of blame to go around, and certainly our shipbuilders always should strive to improve cost controls and construction techniques. But when you have ship programs like LPD – a contract the Navy awarded 11 years ago to the high bidder, a smaller yard not equipped to build that ship – it’s no surprise that costs are climbing as the Navy now scurries to correct its early errors.
LPD is not the only program troubled by early errors in the design process. It’s part of a pattern in which costs for ships are skyrocketing because the Navy is making thousands of excessive changes to original orders as they are executed.
In once instance – with the Littoral Combat Ship – the Navy requested that the vessel be built to commercial standards. Then, after construction had begun, someone at the Pentagon said, “Hey, this is a naval ship. Maybe we should build it to naval specifications.” The shipbuilders then had to enact numerous changes to meet those more stringent, heavier naval specifications. And as everyone in business knows, changes cost time and money.
What started as a simple, multi-purpose $220 million ship program has almost doubled in price, to almost $400 million. That’s not the shipyard, nor the workers’ fault. Someone in the Navy made the wrong decision – an early, costly error.
We must fix this planning problem because the Navy needs much more than 200 ships, and America needs to keep our shipbuilding industry healthy and strong.
Twenty years ago, the U.S. had a dozen shipyards building our Navy’s fleet. Today we’re down to just two companies which operate six shipyards. If the Navy isn’t more careful and cost conscious, if it continues to miscalculate expenses and blame shipbuilders, then America’s future Navy could be built at foreign shipyards.
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column.
Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attn: Press Office) or Email