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Wicker Notes Importance of Naval Power, Shipbuilding Industry

Location: Washington, DC

Representatives of the nation's shipbuilding industry and selected members of Congress met recently to develop strategies that can assist in the rebuilding of American naval forces. This issue is important from a national security standpoint as well as for the impact naval shipbuilding has on the economy of Mississippi.

Fourth District Congressman Gene Taylor and I were among participants in the conference that explored initiatives to help American shipbuilders preserve their capacity to meet our defense needs. I believe this capability is critical to our national security. Reps. Taylor and Jo Ann Davis of Virginia have announced plans to form a Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus at the beginning of the next session in January. I plan to join them in this effort to focus more attention on the industry and its role in our national defense picture.

The Navy's ability to project military strength anywhere in the world is a key component in safeguarding U.S. interests and deterring adversaries. It is also a reality that defense spending limitations have forced a troubling downsizing of the fleet over the past two decades. The challenge we face is to reverse that trend within the framework of a defense budget under pressure to meet wide-ranging obligations.

Since the Navy reached a peak of 568 battle-force ships in 1987, the numbers have dropped dramatically. Today the fleet totals just 289 ships. Many military observers think our Navy is already stretched too thin and argue that an infusion of funding for new ships is essential to strengthen our defenses and for the long-term health of the industry. They also point to emerging new potential threats such as China as another reason to boost spending for next-generation naval vessels.

Mississippi has a longstanding shipbuilding tradition, and companies in our state would benefit from efforts to build up the fleet. Northrup-Grumman Ship Systems is headquartered in Pascagoula. It has operations at several locations along the Gulf Coast. The company's Ingalls facility is Mississippi's largest employer, with more than 10,000 workers on its payroll.

The industry's effect on our economy is magnified further by the businesses that produce components and other services in support of constructing major naval vessels. While many of those firms are located on or near the Gulf Coast, suppliers can be found in communities all across Mississippi. Businesses in Greenwood, Jackson, Grenada, Batesville, Coldwater, Southaven, among others, provide goods and services to Northrup-Grumman's operations.

In October, the state gained another connection to the shipbuilding industry when San Diego-based General Atomics announced plans to locate a facility in Tupelo. The company will build and test a state-of-the-art catapult system to launch aircraft off carriers as well as compete for additional Navy contracts.

There are important economic considerations to maintain a strong shipbuilding base, but the overriding reason is to make sure the U.S. Navy remains the most powerful force on the high seas.

In October I joined with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in writing a letter to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, urging him to include increased funding for more ships in next year's budget request. We wrote that the need for American sea power capability "is greater now than ever before in order to wage the war on terrorism and meet emerging threats...Only naval forces provide the country with the mobility and flexibility to respond quickly and decisively around the globe in defending American interests."

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