Will Trump’s campaign rhetoric on U.S. Navy shipbuilding come true

Published 2:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2017

During the 2016 session last year, the majority of the Republican-led Mississippi Legislature ignored Tea Party protestations and passed a state bond bill that provided $45 million in for capital improvements at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula.

Ingalls employs some 11,000 workers and is a bedrock component of South Mississippi’s economy. Ingalls was lured to Mississippi in 1938 to locate their shipyard in Pascagoula under Gov. Hugh White’s “Balance Agriculture with Industry” program.

The 2016 move drew sharp criticism of state lawmakers and their leadership from critics, who questioned the wisdom of state taxpayers providing $45 million in capital improvements at the Ingalls Pascagoula facility.

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Critics called the bond bill “crony capitalism” and said it exemplified “our state’s poorly-executed long-term economic plans, which is evidenced by irrational spending in many of our bond bills, not to mention a lack of reform in our overall business climate.”

Fast-forward to the present. How does that investment of capital improvements at Ingalls look in the rear-view mirror?

During the long 2016 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump on Oct. 28 pledged to build a 350-ship U.S. Navy as part of his effort to implement “the most serious plan for rebuilding the U.S. military since Ronald Reagan was president.”

As part of the Oct. 28 statement, the Trump campaign said: “Mr. Trump has also proposed building toward a 350 ship Navy, as recommended by the bipartisan National Defense Panel. This includes a significant investment in both new undersea and surface combatants, which means significant new work for facilities like the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.”

The U.S. Navy, as reported by the Associated Press in last month, is even more ambitious than Trump in calling for a 355-ship Navy:

“Boosting shipbuilding to meet the Navy’s 355-ship goal could require an additional $5 billion to $5.5 billion in annual spending in the Navy’s 30-year projection, according to an estimate by naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke at the Congressional Research Service.

“The Navy’s revised Force Structure Assessment calls for adding another 47 ships including an aircraft carrier built in Virginia, 16 large surface warships built in Maine and Mississippi, and 18 attack submarines built in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia. It also calls for more amphibious assault ships, expeditionary transfer docks and support ships.”

Mississippi plays an increasingly vital role in U.S. defense shipbuilding, as noted by analyst and formal naval officer Steve Stashwick writing for The Diplomat:

“Since 1985, all U.S. major surface combatants — cruisers, destroyers, and frigates — have been built at one of two shipyards, Bath Iron Works in Maine, and Ingalls shipbuilding in Mississippi. Nuclear submarines are built at one of two yards in Connecticut and Virginia, and all nuclear aircraft carriers are constructed at a single shipyard in Virginia. This has concentrated a lot of expertise and experience in a relatively small group of shipbuilders.”

Trade publication The Maritime Executive reported this week that Huntington Ingalls is expanding operations and that their Pascagoula shipyard is “leading the way in earnings.” The Pascagoula shipyard builds amphibious assault ships, large deck amphibious ships, and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the Navy. Notably, the Mississippi facility also has the contract for the new national security cutters for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Should Mississippi have invested in Ingalls? Well, every shipbuilding nation on the planet subsidizes the industry in their countries. In the U.S., every state that has shipbuilders likewise invests in trying to retain those shipyard jobs — Virginia lawmakers gave Newport News Shipbuilding $46 million last year. Sound familiar?

Whether Trump keeps his campaign pledge will depend on whether Congress provides the estimated additional $10 billion in federal funding. That’s daunting. But supporting Ingalls — given the subsidies in the rest of the country – seems to have been an inarguably good bet.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.