President Trump has before him a unique opportunity to put the American manufacturing sector into first gear again while serving notice to the Chinese Communist Party that the United States is fully alert to the competition ahead and to the CCP’s negligence in handling the pandemic that began in Wuhan.
The U.S. Navy, the country’s defense industrial base and Wisconsin celebrated last week the Navy’s selection of Fincantieri Marinette Marine to build the first 10 of the fleet’s new guided-missile frigates, known as FFG(X). This design selection, begun under President Barack Obama, has settled on a lethal, missile-filled porcupine of a ship that will provide presence and deterrence across the globe — nowhere more than the waters of the “first island chain” off the East Asia coast, the physical boundary along which super-power competition will largely play out for the rest of the century.
Now Trump can cement his legacy as a navalist president, alongside John Adams, the two Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan, by directing the Navy to quintuple the initial order while tripling the number of shipyards participating. Some experts whisper that the eventual “build” of this class will be 60 or more, and a second shipyard’s participation is anticipated. The president should make that official and designate not one but two more shipyards. This isn’t too big of a stretch for the United States, as Arthur Herman’s remarkable “Freedom’s Forge” reminds us. Civilian heroes of America’s military preparation after the Depression, led by General Motors’ William Knudsen, executed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders of rearmament in 1940 and 1941 — before Pearl Harbor
On June 5, 1940, for example, Knudsen issued contracts for 948 Navy vessels, including 292 combat ships. Four months later, the Navy realized that it would need 50 more destroyers, so Knudsen ordered 10 new slipways in six locations. American manufacturing can be put in the harness when a president directs it.
The Navy’s new frigate has cousins already afloat, serving in four navies including Italy’s and France’s. I was one of many journalists invited aboard the Italian navy frigate Alpino when it paid a call to Baltimore in May 2018. The shipbuilder had brought into its ranks retired three-star Vice Adm. Rick Hunt, who guided me and other rookies around the warship with a minimum of bruised shins and knocked foreheads. Since then, I’ve followed the “competition” between the four would-be contractors. I had no favorite. I just wanted the Navy to move quickly to get its new frigate into production
The new FFG(X) will be packed with Tomahawk land attack, naval surface strike and an assortment of air defense missiles that have the ability to change the face of battle up to a thousand miles from the ship.
More than this kinetic killing ability, however, the frigate in large numbers provides presence. A weekly guest on my radio show, retired four-star Adm. James Stavridis, formerly supreme allied commander and head of America’s Southern Command, never tires of offering two pieces of wide counsel: “Quantity has a quality all its own,” and “oceans never grow smaller.”
The CCP’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has been building new, highly capable ships at an astonishing rate. It is investing in every class of ship as well as in vast missile forces and cybercapabilities. We are at work too on new hypersonic missiles and far-reaching cybercapabilities.
We are a maritime nation and will always need the fleet, even as other traditional land-based military forces adjust to a competition fought over, under and on the ocean and in virtual space. The ship-building community in Wisconsin is celebrating this week, but a simple command from Trump to scale up massively this purchase initiated by his predecessor and designed and selected by apolitical professionals could be a signal that the manufacturing renaissance that will follow America’s shutdown is underway.
If Trump pushes the Pentagon to increase the numbers of and the yards producing the new frigate, a truly historic momentum will have been achieved. And as every ship-building job generates six jobs behind it, the entire defense industrial base will benefit even as the country reorients its defense toward the new adversary in the competition laid bare by the negligence of the CCP that visited this plague on the world.
FDR made the Navy great again, but not in time to prevent war. Trump should act now, to drive the fleet forward, deter conflict and mark an achievement amid the malaise.