The Navy plans to expand its partnership with Japanese shipyards to allow for more significant warship repairs, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.

The Navy plans to expand its partnership with Japanese shipyards to allow for more significant warship repairs, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. (Jennessa Davey/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The U.S. Navy plans to send some of its vessels to Japanese shipyards for maintenance to reduce the time it takes them to return to service, the U.S. ambassador to Japan announced Friday.

U.S. warships are already maintained and repaired in Japan at U.S. Navy installations like Yokosuka or Sasebo Naval Base, but ships are also routinely sent back to the United States for overhauls, upgrades and major repairs. The process can take months or even years to complete.

Eliminating that lengthy process and exploring alternatives is more critical than ever, Ambassador Rahm Emanuel told reporters Friday at Yokosuka.

“We know that China watches which ships are coming in and out — it’s not a secret; they know what’s happening,” and China evaluates the United States’ deterrence level in the region based on that, he said outside of the base’s ship-repair facility.

Repairing U.S. warships at Japanese shipyards isn’t unprecedented. Several years ago, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Yokohama dockyard serviced the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius.

The repair was an attempt to explore the possibility of using private shipyards outside of U.S. bases in Japan, and Mitsubishi indicated it was open to future cooperation with the Navy, the Asahi Shimbun reported in May 2019.

The U.S. is setting up a committee or council to coordinate future ship-repair work between the U.S. and Japan, Emanuel said. The Navy is already holding a practice run with the amphibious transport dock USS New Orleans, homeported in Sasebo, which he said is undergoing repairs at an unspecified Japanese shipyard.

“We’re going to work on this. We’re going to do basically a test, a kind of beta test of the whole concept, and then we’ll start to see and explore how to expand beyond that,” Emanuel said during the news conference.

The change is overdue, he said, citing nearly $1.8 billion in backlogged repairs to surface warships, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO in a May 2022 report found the backlog led the Navy to decommission nine ships and resulted in “the loss of 34 years of ship life.”

“The rules and regulations we had in the past were good for the past,” Emanuel told reporters. “The real-life challenges we have – and the ability to project deterrence – requires making changes.”

The ambassador concluded the press conference without providing additional details.

Emanuel said the idea came up during a conversation he had with Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. Emanuel has advocated for the concept since at least July, when he authored an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal.

“To ensure regional security and stability, it’s past time for our two countries not only to train together but also to maintain maritime readiness together,” he wrote July 11 in the Journal.

“Whether Washington is focused on maintaining our ships or on building overall naval strength, Japan is key to our regional deterrence strategy,” he said.

Emanuel’s announcement of the new program came just one day after Japan signed a deal to purchase 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the U.S., with delivery to take place between fiscal years 2025 and 2027.

The timing, however, was coincidental, Emanuel said.

“It’s a pleasant coincidence,” he jokingly told the reporters. “I wish I could say that we were that strategic with our scheduling.”

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Alex Wilson covers the U.S. Navy and other services from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he holds a journalism degree from the University of North Florida. He previously covered crime and the military in Key West, Fla., and business in Jacksonville, Fla.

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