For the last century, America’s status as a superpower has been rooted in our supremacy on the high seas, enabling us to defend our country from foreign threats, to protect vital shipping lanes and to project power globally in support of American interests and values.

But that supremacy — which many Americans take for granted — is facing new challenges from a rising China. Whether or not we can rise to meet this challenge depends in no small part on the health and vigor of America’s privately-owned shipyards.

The good news is that America has the most powerful and technologically advanced navy the world has ever seen, and President Donald Trump has shown resolve in meeting increasing Chinese belligerence and provocations in the Far East. In fact, for the first time in several years, American aircraft carriers are once again patrolling critical Indo-Pacific sea lanes and conducting regular freedom of navigation transits in strategic waterways, like the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

The bad news is that America’s aging and already strained naval shipyards will face greater pressure to keep up with the fleet’s increasing service and maintenance needs that come along with these obligations.

America’s Naval Shipyards are invaluable. They are also ancient. America’s “youngest” naval shipyard, Pearl Harbor, was established in 1908 prior to the first World War. The facility in Norfolk, at more than 250 years old, makes Pearl Harbor look like a Spring Chicken — predating the Declaration of Independence by a few years.

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Obviously, these yards have been upgraded over the years, but the cost of rebuilding them or conducting the wholesale refurbishments necessary to meet all of the demands of the expanding fleet will take time and money. How much time and money? A lot. The non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently estimated that it will take almost 20 years and nearly $5 billion just to clear the current project and maintenance backlog. We can’t wait that long.

America has a secret weapon however, one that government-run, command and control economies like Communist China’s do not: Private sector shipyards that are ready, willing and able to assist our navy in clearing this backlog and meeting the needs of a growing and more agile fleet. Private yards can provide additional dry dock capacity and perform work on conventional vessels, reducing the strain on navy-owned yards by allowing them to focus their time and resources on nuclear powered vessels like cutting-edge aircraft carriers and submarines.

Assigning more navy work to private shipyards also makes sense for American taxpayers. Doing so will help us avoid some of the pitfalls that GAO has identified with the current navy shipyard overhaul program — problems that seem to be all too familiar government-wide, like “cost overruns, missed deadlines, and performance shortfalls.”

Allowing our private yards to play a greater role in defense-related projects will also help preserve our proud “Made in America” shipbuilding tradition, ensuring that we do not lose the domestic capacity to do this crucial strategic work, while creating and protecting good, family-wage American industrial jobs right here in northern Wisconsin.

A growing number of lawmakers are beginning to see the potential private shipyards hold for improving naval readiness and efficiency. Last month, the House of Representatives approved an amendment I co-authored with Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minnesota, that would expand the ability of private shipyards like Superior-based Fraser to conduct more maintenance and repair jobs on navy vessels, and I am hopeful that this provision will be signed into law later this year.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minoqua, represents Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District. His Wausau office can be reached at 715-298-9344.