China's massive navy is only getting bigger, and the US is looking overseas for help keeping its warships in action

China's massive navy is only getting bigger, and the US is looking overseas for help keeping its warships in action
Fujian, the third third aircraft carrier China has added in 10 years, at a Shanghai shipyard in June 2022.Li Tang/VCG via Getty Images
  • For years, the US Navy has struggled to complete repairs of its ships on time.
  • Protracted delays heighten concerns about maintaining US naval presence in the Western Pacific.

The rapid expansion of China's navy has heightened concerns about the availability of the US Navy's fleet, driving Washington to look abroad for help repairing warships that might otherwise face long delays at home.

China has the world's largest navy, with more than 370 ships and submarines in service in 2022, according to the Pentagon latest report on the Chinese military. Officials and experts say the US Navy's battleforce of roughly 300 ships has a qualitative advantage, but its edge has been dulled by protracted delays at domestic shipyards, problems that have the US looking to foreign shipyards to perform some maintenance and repairs its ships have had to leave the Pacific to receive.

The Government Accountability Office said in January that across 10 classes of US Navy ships, the average depot-maintenance delay per ship increased from 14 days in 2011 to 19 days in 2021. That number has improved, but delays persist amid other challenges at Navy shipyards.

The number of US shipyards has shrunk since the Cold War, and at the four public shipyards still in operation, "the condition of their dry docks and facilities is poor, and their equipment is generally past its useful life," the GAO said in June.

China's massive navy is only getting bigger, and the US is looking overseas for help keeping its warships in action
Guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg in a dry dock in Norfolk in June 2021.US Navy/MCS3 Brandon Roberson

Public and private shipyards face some of the same challenges, including worker shortages. The Navy and Congress are pursuing shipyard upgrades and industrial-base investments that have had a positive impact, and the Navy is seeking high-tech tools to streamline the work. But the Biden administration is also looking abroad for help.


The US and India agreed "to explore possibilities" of using Indian shipyards for repairs and maintenance on US Maritime Sealift Command ships and mid-voyage repairs of US Navy ships during during a summit in April 2022.

That August, USNS Charles Drew, a dry cargo ship, arrived at Larsen & Toubro Shipyard in Chennai for what officials touted as the first repairs of a US Navy ship in India. It was followed in March by USNS Matthew Perry, also a dry cargo ship, and in July by USNS Salvor, a rescue and salvage ship.

Salvor was the first ship repaired in India following the signing of a Master Ship Repair Agreement with L&T Shipyard. The deal allows the shipyard to bid on US Navy and Military Sealift Command repair contracts and has "a rigorous vetting process" to ensure the shipyard can perform the work, the US consul general in Chennai said on July 10.

Another MSRA was reached with Mazgaon Dock Shipbuilders in Mumbai in August, and the US and India are working on a third for Goa Shipyard in Goa.

China's massive navy is only getting bigger, and the US is looking overseas for help keeping its warships in action
Guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald in a dry dock at a US naval base in Japan in July 2017 after colliding with a merchant ship a month earlier.Leonard Adams/US Navy via Getty Images

"These agreements will allow mid-voyage US Navy ships to undergo service and repair at Indian shipyards, facilitating cost-effective and time-saving sustainment activities for US military operations across multiple theaters," the White House said in June.


Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, the service's top civilian official, said in February that the ability to do "forward-based repair and maintenance is critical" and that the repair of USNS Charles Drew in India "was a perfect example of how well-executed we can do this mission."

"We're also looking at other opportunities throughout Asia as well to where we might be able to do that," Del Toro said at the National Press Club, "perhaps in the Philippines and Singapore and other places like that."

One of those places appears to be Japan. It hosts several US Navy bases where warships receive maintenance from Japanese workers, but more extensive or complex repairs, or work on nuclear-powered vessels, requires returning to a US shipyard, according to Nikkei Asia. Current and former officials have advocated expanding the scope of repair work done in Japan, turning to private shipyards to fix US warships so they can remain in the region longer.

China's massive navy is only getting bigger, and the US is looking overseas for help keeping its warships in action
USNS Charles Drew leaves L&T Shipyard near Chennai after conducting scheduled maintenance in August 2022.US Military Sealift Command/Joel Garcia

Japan has "a tremendous amount" of shipyard capacity and its industrial base can be "a big part of the solution" to the US's problems, Rahm Emanuel, US ambassador to Japan, said at an event in March. Using private Japanese shipyards "will enhance our readiness, which will save lives, money, and time," Emanuel said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July, adding that "Japan has the capability and capacity to do the work."

Until the US can expand its own shipyard capacity, "we ought to look at, in the interim, using our allies' capabilities," Harry Harris Jr., a former commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, said at an event on October 16. "There's no better shipbuilding place in the world than South Korea and Japan and the like. We ought to use them to increase our capabilities."


Diverting repair work overseas and even using foreign shipbuilders to build auxiliary ships like those recently repaired in India could reduce the workload at US shipyards, allowing them to invest more resources in modernization, but doing so would likely worry US firms and the lawmakers who represent those shipyards and their employees.

"I know that's not optimal," Harris, a retired US Navy admiral, said of sending that work abroad. "We want to bring those shipyards to the US and rightly hire American workers to build those ships, but we're approaching extremis here. We need to be creative in how we go about fixing the industrial-policy shortfalls that we created ourselves."

China's massive navy is only getting bigger, and the US is looking overseas for help keeping its warships in action
Riggers unhook a hull section from ex-USS Minneapolis-St. Paul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in July 2021.US Navy/Wendy Hallmark

US officials and lawmakers say US shipyards need continued investment but that tensions with China and the demand for US naval presence in the Western Pacific necessitates looking for more immediate options.

"We know that there is a need in the Indo-Pacific theater. We also know we have a challenge in making sure we maintain the proper workloads at our American repair yards," Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told Insider at an event on Capitol Hill on September 19.

"The reality is it's a logistical nightmare to bring a ship all the way back 6,000 miles if it needs emergency repairs," Wittman said. "So the question is how do we have that capacity there and maintain the ship-repair capacity in the United States, and I think we can do both."


Turning to India and Japan to repair ships would be "a force multiplier," Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican and chairman of House Select Committee on Strategic Competition with China, said at the same event.

"We can't think about our ships program as a jobs program. It's about national security. We need more ships. We need more repair yards," Gallagher told Insider. "It's all hands on deck within the free world right now, and I think something like that would simultaneously enhance our ability to repair ships more quickly and also be a deterrent in the Pacific."