US President Donald Trump says he wants to build dozens of new warships in one of the biggest peace-time expansions of the US Navy — but ship-builders and unions say there are major obstacles to that plan.
The initiative could cost nearly $700bn (€652bn) in Government funding, take 30 years 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 interviews and internal documents reviewed.
Trump has vowed a huge build-up of the US military to project American power in the face of an emboldened China and Russia, including expanding the Navy to 350 warships from 275 today.
He has provided no specifics, including how soon he wants the larger fleet.
The Navy has given Defence Secretary Jim Mattis a report that explores how the country’s industrial base could support higher ship production.
But industry says 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.
The first and biggest hurdle for Trump to overcome is to persuade a cost-conscious Congress to fund the military buildup.
A Navy spokeswoman said increases being considered beyond the current shipbuilding plan would require “sufficient time” to allow companies to ramp up capacity.
The two largest US shipbuilders, General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries, said they plan to hire 6,000 workers in 2017 just to meet current orders.
General Dynamics hopes to hire 2,000 workers at Electric Boat this year.
Currently projected order levels already require the shipyard to grow from less than 15,000 workers to nearly 20,000 by the early 2030s, company documents show.
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. Smaller shipbuilders and suppliers are also cautious.
“You can’t hire people to do nothing. Until funding is there...you can’t bring on more workers,” said Jill Mackie, spokeswoman for Vigor Industrial, which makes combat craft for the Navy’s Special Warfare units.
Union and shipyard officials say finding skilled labour just for the work they already have is challenging.
“It has historically taken five years to get someone proficient in shipbuilding,” said Maura Dunn at Electric Boat.
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