(In March 17 item, corrects paragraph 10 to say shipyard is in
Newport News, not Norfolk; Repeats to additional subscribers)
By Mike Stone
WASHINGTON, March 20 U.S. President Donald Trump
says he wants to build dozens of new warships in one of the
biggest peace-time expansions of the U.S. Navy. But interviews
with ship-builders, unions and a review of public and internal
documents show major obstacles to that plan.
The initiative could cost nearly $700 billion in government
funding, take 30 years to complete and require hiring tens of
thousands of skilled shipyard workers - many of whom don't exist
yet because they still need to be hired and trained, according
to the interviews and the documents reviewed.
Trump has vowed a huge build-up of the U.S. military to
project American power in the face of an emboldened China and
Russia. That includes expanding the Navy to 350 warships from
275 today. He has provided no specifics, including how soon he
wants the larger fleet. (For graphics on projected strength of
U.S. Navy, shipyard employment see: tmsnrt.rs/2n3vOr0)
The Navy has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis a report
that explores how the country's industrial base could support
higher ship production, Admiral Bill Moran, the vice chief of
Naval Operations with oversight of the Navy’s shipbuilding
outlook, told Reuters.
He declined to give further details. But those interviewed
for this story say there are clearly two big issues - there are
not enough skilled workers in the market, from electricians to
welders, and after years of historically low production,
shipyards and their suppliers, including nuclear fuel producers,
will struggle to ramp up for years.
To be sure, the first, and biggest, hurdle for Trump to
overcome is to persuade a cost-conscious Congress to fund the
The White House declined to comment. A Navy spokeswoman said
increases being considered beyond the current shipbuilding plan
would require “sufficient time” to allow companies to ramp up
The two largest U.S. shipbuilders, General Dynamics Corp
and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc, told
Reuters they are planning to hire a total of 6,000 workers in
2017 just to meet current orders, such as the Columbia class
ballistic missile submarine.
General Dynamics hopes to hire 2,000 workers at Electric
Boat this year. Currently projected order levels would already
require the shipyard to grow from less than 15,000 workers, to
nearly 20,000 by the early 2030s, company documents reviewed by
Huntington Ingalls, the largest U.S. military shipbuilder,
plans to hire 3,000 at its Newport News shipyard in Newport
News, Virginia, and another 1,000 at the Ingalls shipyard in
Mississippi this year to fulfill current orders, spokeswoman
Beci Brenton said.
Companies say they are eager to work with Trump to build his
bigger Navy. But expanding hiring, for now, is difficult to do
until they receive new orders, officials say.
"It’s hard to look beyond" current orders, Brenton said.
Smaller shipbuilders and suppliers are also cautious.
"You can’t hire people to do nothing," said Jill Mackie,
spokeswoman for Portland, Oregon-based Vigor Industrial LLC,
which makes combat craft for the Navy’s Special Warfare units.
"Until funding is there ... you can’t bring on more workers."
SCALING UP WORKFORCE
Because companies won't hire excess workers in advance, they
will have a huge challenge in expanding their workforces rapidly
if a shipbuilding boom materializes, said Bryan Clark, who led
strategic planning for the Navy as special assistant to the
chief of Naval Operations until 2013.
Union and shipyard officials say finding skilled labor just
for the work they already have is challenging. Demand for
pipeline welders is so strong that some can make as much as
$300,000 per year, including overtime and benefits, said Danny
Hendrix, the business manager at Pipeliners Local 798, a union
representing 6,500 metal workers in 42 states.
Much of the work at the submarine yards also requires a
security clearance that many can’t get, said Jimmy Hart,
president of the Metal Trades Department at the AFL-CIO union,
which represents 100,000 boilermakers, machinists, and
pipefitters, among others.
To help grow a larger labor force from the ground up,
General Dynamics' Electric Boat has partnered with seven high
schools and trade schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island to
develop a curriculum to train a next generation of welders and
“It has historically taken five years to get someone
proficient in shipbuilding," said Maura Dunn, vice president of
human resources at Electric Boat.
It can take as many as seven years to train a welder skilled
enough to make the most complex type of welds, radiographic
structural welds needed on a nuclear-powered submarine, said
Will Lennon, vice president of the shipyard's Columbia Class
The Navy envisioned by Trump could create more than 50,000
jobs, the Shipbuilders Council of America, a trade group
representing U.S. shipbuilders, repairers and suppliers, told
The U.S. shipbuilding and repairing industry employed nearly
100,000 in 2016, Labor Department statistics show. The industry
had as many as 176,000 workers at the height of the Cold War in
the early 1980s as the United States built up a fleet of nearly
600 warships by the end of that decade.
Apart from the labor shortage, there are also serious
capacity and supply chain issues that would be severely strained
by any plan to expand the Navy, especially its submarine fleet.
Expanding the Navy to 350 ships is not as simple as just
adding 75 ships. Many ships in the current 275-vessel fleet need
to be replaced, which means the Navy would have to buy 321 ships
between now and 2046 to reach Trump's goal, the Congressional
Budget Office said in a report in February.
The shipyards that make nuclear submarines - General
Dynamics' Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, and Huntington's
Newport News - produced as many as seven submarines per year
between them in the early 1980s. But for more than a decade now,
the yards have not built more than two per year.
The nuclear-powered Virginia class and Columbia class
submarines are among the largest and most complex vessels to
build. The first Columbia submarine, which is set to begin
construction in 2021, will take seven years to build, and two to
three additional years to test.
Retooling the long-dormant shipyard space will take several
years and significant capital investments, but a bigger problem
is expanding the supply chain, said Clark, the former strategist
for the Navy and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic
and Budgetary Assessments.
Makers of submarine components such as reactor cores, big
castings, and forgers of propellers and shafts would need five
years to double production, said a congressional official with
knowledge of the Navy’s long-term planning.
"We have been sizing the industrial base for two submarines
a year. You can’t then just throw one or two more on top of that
and say, 'Oh here, dial the switch and produce four reactor
cores a year instead of two.' You just can't," the official
In his first budget proposal to Congress on Thursday, Trump
proposed boosting defense spending by $54 billion for the fiscal
2018 year – a 10 percent increase from last year. He is also
seeking $30 billion for the Defense Department in a supplemental
budget for fiscal 2017, of which at least $433 million is
earmarked for military shipbuilding.
A 350-ship Navy would cost $690 billion over the 30-year
period, or $23 billion per year - 60 percent more than the
average funding the Navy has received for shipbuilding in the
past three decades, the Congressional Budget Office said.
Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, who will have a major say in approving the defense
budget, said in a statement to Reuters that he supported Trump's
vision to increase the size of the Navy to deter adversaries.
"However, this is not a blank check," he said.
(Additional reporting by Luciana Lopez in New York, Editing by
Soyoung Kim and Ross Colvin)