尽管亚洲和美洲之间的贸易量巨大，美国海军在太平洋地区的军事活动不断增加，但沿海造船业已逐渐减少到只有一个提供全面服务的造船厂在密西西比州以西生存的程度。这个造船厂就是位于圣地亚哥的美国国家钢铁造船公司（National Steel and Shipbuilding Company，俗称NASSCO），是美国最大的国防承包商-通用动力公司（General Dynamics）的一个部门。
即将到来的最大机会是一项海军计划，该计划将在首字母缩写CHAMP（“common hull auxiliary multi-mission platform”“通用船体辅助多任务平台”）的倡议下对海上运输和其他几类支持船进行注资。由于支持军事战役的海上运输舰队日益减少，CHAMP在国会得到了大力支持，而NASSCO是开发设计的四码堆之一。但是海军的造船预算被超额认购，因此尚不清楚何时开始建造。
NASSCO: The Last Major Shipyard On The U.S. West Coast Shows What It Takes To Survive
Rumor has it that the Pacific Century is upon us. You would never know that to look at the shipbuilding industry on the U.S. West Coast.
Despite the vast volume of trade between Asia and America, and the increasing U.S. naval presence in the Pacific, shipbuilding on the coast has gradually dwindled to a point where only one full-service shipyard survives west of the Mississippi.
That shipbuilder is the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego—universally known as NASSCO—which is a unit of defense contractor General Dynamics (a contributor to my think tank).
NASSCO is thriving at the moment—it has one of the biggest backlogs in its history—but unlike the other two yards owned by General Dynamics, it doesn’t rely solely on the government for revenues. Instead, it chases every opportunity where managers think they can apply their shipbuilding skills profitably, including commercial ships and repair.
NASSCO’s mix of government and commercial shipbuilding, new construction and repair, probably explains why it is doing well at a time when, one by one, its other West Coast rivals have disappeared. Sustaining a diverse revenue base enables the yard to cope with boom-and-bust cycles in both naval and commercial demand.
But even in the best of times, NASSCO’s managers know they have to keep running as fast as they can just to stay where they are. A single legislative act or executive exertion in Washington could put decades of effort in jeopardy.
That’s what happened to several of NASSCO’s competitors in the 1980s. The Reagan Administration decided to eliminate construction subsidies for commercial oceangoing vessels in the U.S. without seeking reciprocal action from other shipbuilding nations.
Within a decade, commercial shipbuilding in the U.S. had collapsed. What had been the biggest such industry in the world, with 70 oceangoing vessels under construction in the nation’s bicentennial year, ebbed away to nothing. Today, South Korea out-produces the U.S. in commercial tonnage by a ratio of 100-to-1.
The decline of U.S. shipbuilding was exacerbated by the Navy’s consolidation of its ship maintenance and repair facilities after the Cold War ended. The pool of skilled workers capable of assembling or modifying large vessels gradually contracted so that today, one of the biggest challenges faced by surviving yards is finding competent workers to fabricate parts and assemble vessels.
New technology helps—such as numerically controlled machining centers and laser cutting systems—but shipbuilding remains a labor-intensive activity, and the labor needs to know what it is doing. NASSCO, like the lesser shipyards clustered along San Diego’s waterfront near the Navy’s biggest West Coast base, is constantly searching for talent.
And for business. Although the shipyard today is using every square foot of its 80 acres to build or repair ships, managers know that production runs are limited and new programs need to be secured well in advance of when workers start bending metal. A senior executive at another shipbuilding company told me that the state of his yards today reflects decisions Congress made seven years ago.
With demand cycles so drawn out, the people who run NASSCO always have on their minds the question of what comes next. For instance, the yard is currently working on two commercial vessels for protected domestic shipping routes, but the future of commercial demand is uncertain at best. Fleet replenishment oilers to replace the Navy’s aging fleet are a major opportunity, but a flat or declining defense budget picture might stretch that effort out.
And then there is the Expeditionary Sea Base being built for use by sailors, marines and special operators—a huge warship displacing 80,000 tons based on an oil tanker design that NASSCO built for carrying crude from Alaska to the lower 48 states. The yard is expected to build at least seven of these floating bases, probably more, but the expeditionary warfare plans of the Marine Corps are in flux.
So even with a robust order book for new construction vessels, NASSCO never slows its search for future opportunities. Performing maintenance and repair of Navy vessels provides a vital underpinning for NASSCO’s business base. However, much of that work must be done away from San Diego, so it only makes an incremental contribution to the preservation of skills applicable to new construction.
The biggest opportunity on the horizon is a Navy program to recapitalize sealift and several other categories of support vessels under an initiative with the acronym CHAMP (“common hull auxiliary multi-mission platform”). CHAMP has major support in Congress due to the growing decrepitude of a sealift fleet essential to supporting military campaigns, and NASSCO is one of four yards developing designs. But the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is oversubscribed, so it isn’t clear when construction will start.
I toured the San Diego yard last month and was impressed with the intensity of activity. If heavy industry is a dying sector in America, that sure isn’t apparent at NASSCO. But you have to wonder how America has gone from being one of the biggest commercial shipbuilders on the planet to an afterthought with few people in Washington even noticing. The U.S. political culture seems to assume American industry will thrive even when indications to the contrary are easy to find.
An interagency task force formed by the White House found last year that there are numerous challenges to what’s left of the shipbuilding sector, including boom-and-bust demand cycles, skill shortages and a fragile supply chain. For instance, only one domestic forge remains that can make large propeller shafts for oceangoing vessels.
NASSCO provides a case study of how a relatively small shipyard has managed to survive these and other trends that doomed some of its rivals. But even though it is doing well today, it is an open question as to what fate awaits the dwindling ranks of U.S. shipbuilders if Washington doesn’t pay closer attention to the industrial sinews that once made America the “arsenal of democracy.”
Source: Forbes via hellenicshippingnews