Procurement: USN Fails at Ship Building


May 31, 2024: The U.S. Navy is unable to build enough new ships to replace the fleet it currently has. The navy has about 470 ships in active service as well as the reserve fleet. The principal vessels are the combat ships, which include 11 aircraft carriers, nine Amphibious Assault Ships for transporting and landing marine battalions, ten LPD Amphibious Dock Landing Ships to supply amphibious operations, fifty SSNs (Nuclear attack submarines), fourteen SSBNs (Ballistic missile carrying nuclear submarines), four SSGM (SSBNs converted to carry over a hundred cruise missiles), one frigate, 13 cruisers, 75 destroyers and about fifty support ships of various types.

The navy has not spent the money required to maintain its ability to build replacement ships or even maintain the ships it has. The navy has recognized the growing importance of USV (Unmanned Surface Vessels) and UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vessels) but has been slow to order and deploy these unmanned vessels to aid the navy in defending Taiwan from Chinese attack..

In contrast the Chinese Navy has been able to quickly create a navy with more warships than the U.S. Navy. Over the last two decades China has become the largest builder and operator of merchant ships. By 2019 China’s two major shipbuilders, CSSC and CSIC, merged to create the largest shipbuilder in the world with 310,000 employees. A decade earlier there were nearly half a million employees but recessions, continued competition from rivals South Korea and Japan forced the change. The new company, CSG (China Shipbuilding Group), as well as the two it merged from are all state owned. The merger was a return to the situation in 1999 when CSSC and CSIC were created from the then single state-owned shipbuilding operation. This was meant to encourage competition and it worked.

Chinese shipbuilders, mainly the two large firms, account for most of the shipbuilding in China and were striving to overtake their main rival South Korea as the largest shipbuilder in the world in all categories. There are several ways to measure shipbuilder output. South Korea was the champion in most of them. Japan was once in first place but now must settle for third place. South Korea and China have been close competitors for first place since 2012 and to that end the two largest South Korean ship builders also merged in 2019.

South Korea made a comeback in shipbuilding, an industry it led until 2012 when it was briefly overtaken by China. By 2018 South Korean firms surpassed China in new orders. This was mainly because South Korean shipbuilders are seen as leaders in the construction of more complex transports like LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) vessels, which transport refrigerated (enough to turn natural gas to a more compact liquid) natural gas. Another form of unique ship construction that South Korea has excelled at was offshore oil exploration and drilling vessels and structures. The offshore platforms are built in shipyards and are mobile, via towing at slow speeds from one work site to another.

All major shipbuilders had to deal with a sharp decline in orders since a global economic recession began in 2008. One way China helped its shipyards cope was increasing orders for warships. This was going to happen anyway but the government gave the navy all it wanted and then some. This resulted in 2019 being a record year for warship construction with 28 surface warships launched, including a record ten destroyers plus 16 corvettes and two large amphibious ships. While warships are more complex ships to build, commercial ships still accounted for over 95 percent of the work at the new China Shipbuilding Group. From that point on China has been the largest producer of non-nuclear warships.

Since 2012 China and South Korea have been competing for overall first place. Eventually even the South Korean edge in quality and innovation was not enough and now China is firmly in first place with South Korea second and Japan third. China has been helping its shipyards since the late 1990s, and that has enabled Chinese shipbuilders to gradually catch up to South Korea and Japan. In 2009, sooner than anyone expected, China surpassed South Korea as the world's largest shipbuilder in terms of tonnage. In late 2009, Chinese yards had orders for 54.96 million CGT of ships, compared to 53.63 million CGT for South Korea. China had 34.7 percent of the world market. In 2000, South Korea took the lead from Japan by having the largest share of the world shipbuilding market. The massive South Korean and Japanese shipbuilding capability and has enabled these two nations to reinforce the Americans Pacific Fleet and confront the Chinese with a formidable naval force that blocks any efforts to dominate the South China Sea.

At the same time the Chinese have been working hard on how to build new classes of navy supply ships. These are built to efficiently supply ships at sea. In addition to learning how to transfer these supplies at sea, the crews have also learned how to keep all the needed supplies in good shape and stocked in the required quantities. This requires the procurement officers learning how to arrange resupply at local ports in a timely basis.

As the major producers of commercial ships, China was able to design and build supply ships for the Chinese Navy quickly. This included designing and building two Sansha class supply ships by 2014 for use in supplying new naval bases in the South China Sea. The design was unique and to speed up the construction process China bought the rights to an existing European design that had not been built yet. This degree of ship building skill and innovation was something the United States no longer has. Since World War II, when the U.S. was the largest shipbuilder in the world, the American shipbuilding capability diminished. Currently the U.S. can build ships but slowly and in small quantities and most of those built are warships. American yards are not as efficient as the Chinese shipbuilders and take five to ten years to complete a warship China can complete in a year or two. This includes non-nuclear aircraft carriers.

The American warships are still, on average, more powerful than their Chinese counterparts. This is largely due to the American nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear submarine forces. China has nothing like these but does have more anti-ship missiles on their ships plus cruise and ballistic missiles launched from land to hit American ships far from the Chinese coast. American warships are generally well-protected from those but supply ships aren’t. At all. The primary American weakness is seaborne supply and the Chinese are well aware of that.




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