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$25 billion bill in Congress seeks to speed up modernization of Pearl Harbor

Docking Officer Lt. Cmdr. Michael Smith, far left, oversees the undocking of USS Port Royal from Dry Dock 4 at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Port Royal was in dry dock for about seven months to repair damage. (US Navy photo by Marshall Fukuki/Released)

A bipartisan bill seeks $25 billion to upgrade the Navy’s four shipyards—Pearl Harbor included—sooner rather than later, as well as to make improvements to private yards in the face of rapid Chinese military expansion.

The Navy since 2018 has had plans for a 20-year, $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, but some in Congress believe that’s too long and that funding for critical shipyard improvements could get diverted over time.

Meanwhile, the threat keeps advancing by leaps and bounds.

“Current infrastructure cannot keep pace with China, ” the new bill states. “China has already surpassed the U.S. Navy as the world’s largest by sheer numbers of warships.”

The Pearl Harbor shipyard, the state’s largest industrial employer, has four dry docks in use. The oldest, Dry Dock 1, was completed in 1919. The newest—Dry Dock 4—was finished in 1943. Navy Yard Pearl Harbor itself was established in 1908 as a mid-Pacific coaling and repair station. The layout was designed for long-gone classes of warships.

The Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards and America’s Repair Docks, or SHIPYARD Act, introduced by U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Susan Collins, R-Maine ; Angus King, I-Maine ; and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., along with Reps. Rob Wittman, R-Va., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., would allow the Navy to accelerate modernization.

The SHIPYARD Act would appropriate $25 billion under the Defense Production Act with $21 billion for Navy public shipyards in Hawaii, Washington state, Maine and Virginia ; $2 billion for major Navy private new construction shipyards ; and $2 billion for Navy private repair shipyards—including in Hawaii.

“Congress has already taken the important step of committing to a larger Navy, but our shipyards are having trouble servicing today’s 296-ship fleet and are clearly insufficient to maintain the 355-ship or larger fleet we need to counter China, Russia and other adversaries, ” Wicker said in a release.

Said Gallagher, “At a time when China is commissioning three ships in a single day, we desperately need to strengthen the American shipbuilding industrial base to expand, support and service the fleet.”

The bill would fully fund the Navy’s Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program and provide a 20-year period to obligate funds, “but all funds will be available upon enactment to give the Navy flexibility and the ability to accelerate improvements, ” according to details of the measure.

Brent D. Sadler and Maiya Clark, both with The Heritage Foundation, wrote in a May 3 opinion piece that the Navy optimization program “is a 20-year plan that depends on just-in-time funding, through annual defense appropriations, for a long series of projects.”

“President Joe Biden unveiled a bountiful $2 trillion infrastructure plan at his 100 Days address to Congress—with seemingly something for everybody, from electric cars to elder care, ” the pair wrote. “But for the sake of our national defense, there is one area of critical infrastructure which warrants attention now : U.S. Navy shipyards.”

Pearl Harbor shipyard mainly works on older Los Angeles-class and newer Virginia-class attack submarines, but does contract out work for surface ships in Dry Dock 4.

The yard has approximately 6, 000 civilian workers (not counting contractors at Dry Dock 4 ) and 500 military workers. More than 1, 000 shipyard workers were added between 2010 and 2018.

A surge in demand for attack submarines due to competition with China and the lengthening of Virginia subs to carry more missiles has the Navy planning to build its first new dry dock at Pearl Harbor since World War II to accommodate the larger vessels.

The Congressional Budget Office said the Navy’s four shipyards “have experienced significant delays in completing maintenance on its submarines, ” with work increasing and the Navy formerly not hiring enough workers to keep pace with the workload.

The shipyard optimization plan, meanwhile, “provides a much-needed investment in our 100-plus-year-old shipyards, ” acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker told a House appropriations subcommittee April 28.

Harker noted the 20-year time frame and said, “We would appreciate the opportunity to accelerate that program because it is very critical to our success.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said at the same hearing that “we’re putting new submarines in the water, Virginia-class block 3s and 4s. They’re longer submarines. We need to be able to get them into dry docks so we can work on them.”

Gilday said the Navy plans to equip Zumwalt-class destroyers with new hypersonic missiles “and then on our Virginia-class block 5 submarines ” with sub-launch capability by 2028.

A new USS Arizona, at more than $3 billion, will be the first submarine to be built with what’s known as a Virginia Payload Module with an additional 84-foot midbody section—meaning 460 feet in total length—with vertical launch tubes capable of firing an additional 28 missiles. The sub is expected to be delivered to the Navy in late 2025.

At a separate May 6 House subcommittee hearing on ship and submarine maintenance, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said 20 years for shipyard modernization is “far too long.”

“Congress directed the development of this plan, and I worry without our continuing prodding that it will fail to come to fruition, ” Garamendi said, noting that the Navy “has the unfortunate habit of prioritizing resources for new platforms over the essential but perhaps less glamorous investment in facilities.”

Vice Adm. William Galinis, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, said the shipyard optimization is “absolutely foundational ” to maintaining the next generation of aircraft carriers and submarines.

Offering an update on where the plan stands, Galinis said, “As we complete a digital twin model for each of our four shipyards and build out each shipyard’s area development plan, we will be able to design and build modern shipyards that will maximize work efficiencies.”

In June 2020 the Navy said it awarded a $9 million contract to AECOM Technical Services for Pearl Harbor shipyard renovation studies. More recently, a $43.5 million contract modification was approved for a 175-ton heavy-lift “portal crane ” at the shipyard, with a total contract amount of $89.5 million.

The rise of China as a peer competitor has propelled improvements at Pearl Harbor shipyard, where plans are being pursued for the new dry dock—which may be the first here to be enclosed—and a first-of-its-kind waterfront production facility. Dry Dock 3, the shortest of the four, likely would be removed.

A Navy notice last year seeking industry feedback estimated the construction cost at $2 billion to $4 billion.

Whether any funding is programmed for any of the bigger projects heading into leaner budgets remains unclear. Pearl Harbor shipyard referred questions to the office of the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, which could not be reached for comment Friday.

PEARL HARBOR SHIPYARD UPGRADE A bipartisan bill seeks $25 billion to upgrade the Navy’s four existing shipyards. The Navy also plans to build its first new dry dock at Pearl Harbor since World War II to accommodate larger vessels.

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