Celebrating the American Shipbuilding Association’s demise:

by Craig Hooper on December 1, 2010

Today, this blogger–along with the Navy–won a big victory.

For me, it’s a vindication of sorts: On November 14, 2007, I was the first to publicly call out the American Shipbuilding Association and it’s lobbyist-in-chief, Cindy Brown (that’s her on the right). I hammered the ASA’s record:

If you’ve spent the last 20 years lobbying for navy shipbuilders, and yet, during your 20 year tenure, the fleet has shrunk from about 600 ships to 279 vessels, the numbers say you’re an incredible, flamboyant failure.

One of the reasons I got into Navy milblogging was my frustration at the Congressional habit of limiting shipbuilding competition by, in large part, presenting the “Big Six” shipyards as America’s sole (and irreplaceable!) contributors to shipbuilding’s industrial base. With the help of well-funded lobbying organizations like ASA, these big shipbuilders, well, took over, hijacking naval strategy so it would keep their shipbuilding monopoly going.

On July 23, 2007, I first articulated my concern that the ASA, by aiding and abetting the Navy’s unhealthy appetite for overly-big and overly-complex ships, was squelching competition, because, in my words:

The big guys are gonna keep lobbying for big boats….because, if the US Navy starts building smaller vessels in any numbers, all these hungry little guys are going to eat the big dogs for lunch

I didn’t think the “Big Six” monopoly was healthy for the Navy or the nation, and, in the early days of this blog, it really rankled. I thrashed out ideas. Ranted. Complained. But, in the end, I figured the easiest way to chip away at the ASA was to push for better, more in-depth media coverage of Navy shipbuilding, so, I got started, writing:

When will reporters understand that the “U.S. Shipbuilding Industrial Base” extends far beyond Cynthia Brown’s clientele–the two big shipbuilding dogs, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics? Cindy Brown is simply a supporter of two companies–and, beyond that, the state of America’s shipbuilding industry as a whole matters precious little…The way I see things, Cindy Brown and the American Shipbuilding Association are handmaidens in the destruction of America’s shipbuilding industrial base. And if I were a small Navy shipbuilder, I’d contact reporters who use Cynthia Brown as a “unbiased” source on the “state of American shipbuilding” and howl, howl, howl…

In 2008, I helped limit the ASA’s ability to influence the public by exposing the American Shipbuilding Association’s intimate (and, I think, irregular) association with Congress’ local newspaper, The Hill. For the ASA, the Hill was a critical outlet because it weilded disproportionate legislative influence. I spent a lot of time looking at the ASA’s “go-to” reporter, Roxanna Tiron, and put her record out there for her editors to examine her pro-ASA work. I mean, take a look at this.

It didn’t take long for Cindy Brown and the ASA to disappear from The Hill’s pages.

The writing was on the wall.

With the demise of Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Northrop Grumman) in the last election, the ASA’s power and access to Hill’s naval tastemakers had completely eroded. It had–just like most of the rest of the Big Six, grown lazy and sclerotic, and had no real ability to communicate–no ability to demonstrate contemporary relevance. In the end, the ASA was so backward, it had nary a blog, twitterfeed or Web 2.0 presence at all, and that, given the ASA’s inability to make a case for itself in the public sphere, killed the organization.

And so, according to Tim Colton, yesterday the ASA decided to dissolve.

Good riddance.

But what will take ASA’s place? I fully expect Gene Taylor and Trent Lott to pick up the pieces where ASA left off–to try and harness American naval strategy to the fate of a few big companies, limit competitiveness and stifle innovation. But, I suspect, this next time, it’s gonna be a bit harder.

America now knows the big shipbuilders simply cannot do an adequate job–even with their monopoly–and now the little guys, with the JHSV, LCS, and OPC programs, have just enough oxygen (and, hopefully, some PR savvy) to start kicking back a bit.

And then, of course, there’s the naval blogosphere. Speaking truth to power since oh, 2007.

It’s a good day.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Cosmo deMedici June 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm

This is what really killed the AMERICAN Shipbuilding Industrial base:

1. TAX CODE on Commercial Ships and Ship Operators. This is where you will hear the terms “Flags of Convenience.” This crushed the commerical industry.
2. President Reagan and the 600-ship Navy; yes you read correctly. The push for the 600-ship fleet was correct, but it pared with it tax structures and policies in the commercial area that effectively crippled any hope of anything beyond the Jones Act, PVSA, and other government sponsored shipping or shipbuilding. But with so many Navy ships the industry was thriving and the taxpayer got what they paid for (mostly firm fixed price).
3. 600-ship Navy (that never was) – see now Sen. Webb about that.
4. Market falls out when the push for a 600-ship fleet is done. Do you own a house? Think of the housing bubble, that is what happened to shipbuilders. They built up so many new ships (inventory) in a short period that nothing was needed for quite some time.
5. Industry consolidates to maximize and preserve capability and capacity. This leads to the big six; who in turn over the last decade collapsed into two owners. One of which wants out of the shipbuilding business because the profit margin is 3% or less.
6. The two big dogs, aka NG and GD, have more than enough political clout that it has not changed a thing, except save some money they were spending on an association for two parent companies.

Clearly you don’t understand what it takes to build a Navy warship, and certainly not from a business perspective. For example, most of the welds are highly specialized and it takes on average 5 years of school and practice to do them correctly. It is not that way for a commercial ship.

It is a shame that you have no idea how hard ASA, organized labor, and the upper echelons of the US Navy worked together to influence the political debate for a larger Navy. Remember, the Constitution says “maintain a Navy.”

I hope you like your “disposable” ship from the small yards – better know as the LCS, or maybe you want to buy the ships from China. Look up what the English did to the Byzantine Empire for that reference.


John P McGrath December 9, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Well written and pointed. It obviously took a lot of time and enormous effort to bring this to light. Any organization interested in changing the playing field of over regulation, scare tactics and ossified, petrified and calcified ship building rules that favor the P.A.C “big” maritime maintenance/ship building industry should go to the American Maritime Modernization Association web site (AMMAinc.org) where the focus is on improvement in the industry rather than building a bigger, more expensive mouse trap.


Craig Hooper December 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm

It’s an interesting time. But I’m convinced that competition is a good thing–good for the best in the business (Bath) and good for the aggressive new people who are bringing new stuff to the table (Austal).

It’s the laggards that suffer–Northrop Grumman’s Gulf shipyards and so forth…Keeping these folks breathing just does bad things to the entire sector.


Blacktail December 3, 2010 at 5:30 am

I’m glad to see the schmoozing machine disappear, and grateful for your help in making it possible.

Huge defense monopolies are never a good thing, and we’re lucky we didn’t have to wait until we’re at war with a rival naval power to be rid of this organization.

We weren’t *always* so lucky, though — recall the monopoly on torpedoes that a SINGLE company had in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Torpedo Scandal that resulted in it;


Moe DeLaun December 2, 2010 at 7:15 am

I recently learned about the flag signal “Bravo Zulu” – signal sent!

Perhaps the cracks in corporate control will spread from Navy shipbuilding to other defense acquisitions. Our winner-take-all culture breeds slovenly, arrogant titans incapable of accomplishing *anything* except political maneuvering and paper profits.
Could General Krulak and Donald Roebling have gotten the Amtracs into service in time for the Pacific War in today’s environment? Unless they’d purchased a Congressional committee, probably not.


Craig Hooper December 2, 2010 at 1:41 am

Yeah, we’re all better off.


Russell Bichowsky December 1, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Well done! Superb work!


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