The U.S. may have “the most powerful and technologically advanced navy the world has ever seen,” but our naval shipyards are “ancient,” U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, Wisconsin, pointed out in an op-ed on Aug. 28.
Our newest naval shipyard is Pearl Harbor in Hawaii — and it was established more than 110 years ago in 1908. The facility in Norfolk, Virginia, Tiffany pointed out, is more than 280 years old.
“Obviously, these yards have been upgraded over the years, but the cost of rebuilding them or conducting the wholesale refurbishments necessary to meet all of the demands of the expanding fleet will take time and money,” Tiffany wrote. “How much time and money? A lot. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently estimated that it will take almost 20 years and nearly $5 billion just to clear the current project and maintenance backlog. We can’t wait that long.”
Fortunately, at the ready to help out are private-sector shipyards like Fraser Shipyards in Superior. In July, an amendment co-authored by Tiffany and U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, to expand the ability of private shipyards to maintain and repair U.S. Navy vessels was approved by the U.S. House. Tiffany indicated he was “hopeful” the amendment could be signed into law this year.
With U.S. Senate support and the president’s signature, the secretary of the Navy would be able to consider maintenance and repair work at shipyards other than those in Navy vessels’ homeports — including ports around the Great Lakes.
"Shipyards across the Great Lakes are up to the task," Stauber said in a statement last summer when a similar amendment he co-sponsored also passed through the House. "Shipyards in the Great Lakes shouldn't be excluded from Navy maintenance work just because of government red tape. Our nation's military deserves the very best, and I'm glad we could bring an opportunity like this to the Great Lakes.”
Given the U.S. Navy’s expanding fleet, there’s certainly plenty of work for both naval shipyards and private facilities. The Navy has a “tremendous maintenance backlog,” as former Republican Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin pointed out when co-sponsoring the amendment last summer with Stauber. That pent-up work remains.
How big an impact could such an amendment have on ports like Duluth-Superior? Look no further than tiny Marinette, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. The shipyard there employs almost 3,000 people and is credited for about 20,000 jobs in the area, each one another boost to the local economy, Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy Jodi Greene said in an exclusive interview last summer with the News Tribune Opinion page.
"Those shipyard workers are as proud and have the same sense of service as the sailors who wear the uniform," Greene said. "Obviously, (the amendment) is very important. Smaller shipyards offer a lot for maintenance. ... Having as many options as we can for maintenance facilities is very important. I think that having that capability, no matter where it sits, and having shipyards that are capable, is part of an important support network. ...
"Supporting (local) economies in the U.S. is always — that's always in the minds of the leadership at the Department of the Navy and Congress, to be sure that we're supporting the workforce and the industrial base back here," said Greene.
The Twin Ports and others around the Great Lakes that aren't now home to naval vessels can certainly hope so. We can all urge the U.S. Senate to follow the House in pushing this amendment toward law.