When President Trump called for an expanded naval fleet on March 2, he chose the grandest venue Hampton Roads could offer: a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
The future USS Gerald R. Ford was pier side at Newport News Shipbuilding. The location was a natural pick: A speech aboard America’s most advanced carrier at the only U.S. shipyard that builds them.
But Trump could have traveled a few blocks down 39th Street to visit a different sort of ground zero in the pending fleet buildup. The Hampton Machine Shop supplies the Newport News yard with ladders and foundations and other components turned out by a small group of skilled machinists, welders and other trades workers.
Trump and the Navy want to dramatically expand the fleet from about 275 to 355 ships, the biggest buildup since the Reagan administration. Included in that total would be a 12th aircraft carrier and a boost in nuclear-powered submarine production.
The military needs the Newport News shipyard to make that happen. The yard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole builder of carriers and one of two yards that builds nuclear-powered submarines.
But it also needs the Hampton Machine Shop and hundreds of other small- to medium-sized businesses that supply everything from pipe elbows to valves to privacy curtains. In military parlance, it’s known as the defense industrial base, and its condition has been described as fragile.
The shipyard is hiring 3,000 workers this year, bringing its total to about 23,000, due to a natural uptick in business. If the 355-ship fleet becomes reality, the yard can hire workers faster than Congress can appropriate the money.
Things aren’t that simple for the smaller business.
They don’t have vast reserves to get through the lean times. Some have an aging workforce and need younger employees to come on board. And yet expansion is difficult. Will the 355-ship Navy become a reality? Will contracts be delayed if Congress dickers to the brink of another government shutdown?
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