Coalition Going To Bat For Aircraft Carrier Contractors In Hampton Roads


The debate over how many aircraft carriers the U.S. should keep reverberates beyond national security and the fortunes of Newport News Shipbuilding, the sole builder of the nuclear-powered fleet.

It means the world to businesses like Hampton Machine Shop and Mid-Atlantic Coatings in Chesapeake, among 600 companies in 39 states that have a lot riding on whether the Navy keeps 11 carriers or drops to 10.

That’s why the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition will run ads next week to support refueling the USS George Washington in 2016, not retire it.

The Defense Department budget submission leaves the question unanswered. Pentagon officials say they want to keep the GW, but the Navy would move to retire it if across-the-board budget cuts return.

The coalition’s ad, which will run in Defense News, Politico and, features a straight-on shot of the GW with the headline: “To be this strong at 50 requires a little work at 25.”

It refers to a carrier’s mid-life refurbishment, known as a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH). The nuclear-powered ship is completely redone after 25 years of service, making it seaworthy for another 25 years.

At present, the USS Abraham Lincoln is undergoing a RCOH at the shipyard under a $2.6 billion contract. Typically, about 15 percent of the value of an average RCOH goes to the Newport News shipyard’s supplier base, said Christie Miller, a shipyard spokeswoman.

That kind of money keeps a lot of small businesses humming.

“It’s a large slice of the pie,” said Diane Beilharz, senior vice president of the Hampton Machine Shop, which employs about 75 people at two locations.

The company works on ladders, foundations, lifting pads and other components when a carrier arrives in Newport News for an overhaul. The company has invested money in equipment and needs steady income to pay for it – as well as keep the lights on.

“It means a lot to us,” Beilharz said.

Thomas Dawson tells a similar story. As president of Mid-Atlantic Coatings, his company performs sanding and blasting work on carrier overhauls.

“Quite honestly, a RCOH is probably seventy-five to eighty percent of our business,” he said.

To work more efficiently, the company has developed environmental equipment and special staging, or scaffolding, that fits into tanks that are onboard carriers.

It makes the company more competitive, Dawson said, but it also saves money for the shipyard, the Navy, and ultimately the taxpayer. And it requires steady work to recoup the significant capital investment.

Mid-Atlantic Coatings employs between 125 and 250 people, and many have worked themselves into good positions through hard work, not advanced degrees.

“These are blue-collar jobs that allow these people to make white-collar incomes,” he said.

Next week, the coalition holds its “action days” where members will take to Capitol Hill and lobby members of Congress to keep the George Washington in the fleet. Hampton Machine Shop and Mid-Atlantic Coatings will be among those knocking on doors

Retiring the GW would not translate into business for these suppliers. They’re depending on a refueling.

“This is a far-reaching decision,” said Dawson. “And it’s a big deal for us.”

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