Navy Secretary Calls for Restoring "Atrophied" U.S. Shipbuilding Sector

Del Toro
Courtesy USN

Published Apr 12, 2024 11:47 PM by The Maritime Executive


As he prepared to launch into a pointed keynote address at a conference in the capital this week, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro welcomed the audience and quoted President Harry Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington, get yourself a dog." To emphasize the point, Del Toro brought out his friend in Washington - a brown and white bulldog, Chesty, who trotted out for a quick circuit around the stage.

Del Toro was at the conference to celebrate the U.S. Navy's accomplishments, but also to remind its shipbuilders, suppliers and procurement officials of how far they have to go. A recent review of Navy shipbuilding revealed that three of the most important programs - the Columbia-class ballistic missile sub, the next Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Constellation-class frigate - are running one to three years behind schedule. There are proximate causes, like supplier delays and workforce difficulties, but Del Toro pointed to the long-term decline that began with the end of the Cold War. 

"Over the past 40 years, America's shipbuilding capabilities have atrophied. The consequences for naval shipbuilding have been manifesting for years, and will grow ever more acute unless we reverse the underinvestment," he said. "Right now we build the most capable warships in the world, in shipyards that are sometimes decades behind the global technological standard."

The current level of shipyard capability, he warned, is "wholly inadequate to pace our 21st-century competitors." But Del Toro sees potential in the skills of America's allies - and the potential to make American shipbuilding great again, with outside help and investment. 

"[Korea and Japan] build high quality ships, including AEGIS destroyers, for a fraction of the cost that we do. When my team and I went to South Korea, we were floored at the level digitalization and real-time monitoring of shipbuilding progress," he said. "We have the opportunity to attract the most advanced shipbuilders in the world . . . and invest in commercial shipyards here at home."

The critique was a toned-down version of the tongue-lashing Del Toro delivered at the West conference in February, when he accused top defense contractors of appearing to "prioritize stock prices that drive executive compensation" by putting off investments in the industrial base. "I need you to deliver platforms and capabilities on time and on budget without excuses," he said.