Navy considering Newport News Shipbuilding’s future

By Bill Bartel
The Virginian-Pilot

Is the day coming when Newport News Shipbuilding will no longer have a monopoly on building the Navy’s aircraft carriers?

A defense analyst said the Navy’s desire to create more competition – to stifle rising costs and address changes in technology and warfare – could lead the Pentagon to encourage a future rival to Virginia’s largest private employer.

Others disagree, arguing that Newport News is well-positioned because the cost of developing another carrier builder would far outweigh any potential benefits.

Nonetheless, the Navy has begun a study, expected to be completed in about a year, to examine the future of its large-deck aviation ships. The study will look at improving war-fighting capabilities while seeking “to identify acquisition strategies that promote competition in naval ship construction,” according to a March 20 statement.

“We’re taking a hard look to see… is there a sweet spot, something different other than today’s 100,000-ton carrier, that would make sense to provide the power projection that we need… but at the same time put us in a more affordable position to providing that capacity,” Assistant Navy Secretary Sean Stackley told a Senate committee in March.

Stackley testified that the Navy isn’t unhappy with the company’s performance: “we are content – not with the lack of competition – but we are content with knowing that we’re only going to have one builder of our aircraft carriers.”

Since the Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, every U.S. carrier has been built in Newport News.

Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, said the new study is driven by a desire to look at smaller alternatives to the Ford-class ships that could lead to a fleet filled with a larger number of less expensive carriers in coming decades.

Clark, a former strategic planner for the Navy, said the Navy’s questions include “Do I want to look at building smaller carriers that are maybe more survivable because they are smaller? And can I build more of them so they are more dispersed?”

Should the Pentagon pursue smaller carriers in future decades, it could spark competition from other shipbuilders. Clark noted that the Navy is already promoting more competition for future amphibious assault ships by encouraging a limited competition between General Dynamics NASSCO and Huntington Ingalls Industries – Newport News’ parent company – to build amphibious assault ships, which resemble small carriers.

Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, said building amphibs does not compare to the complexity of constructing carriers.

“I think that would be a tough putt – for another shipbuilder to gain the experience that Newport News Shipbuilding and Huntington Ingalls has gained over decades, of knowing how to build aircraft carriers as we know them today,” said Quigley, a retired rear admiral. “Could it be done? I suppose…. But it would be a daunting challenge.”

Quigley said it’s healthy for the Navy to study the future of its biggest warships but notes that past studies have shown that the large carriers’ capacity to carry out continuous fighter attacks from far off shore is worth the expense.

“Everybody would like the cost of an aircraft carrier today to be less than it is,” he said. “But the capability and flexibility it brings to the Navy and the nation are without parallel in the world.”

Some in Congress, particularly Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, have complained for years about the ballooning cost of the Gerald R. Ford, the first of a class of new carriers. Originally budgeted to cost $10.5 billion, the ship now has a $12.9 billion price tag. It is scheduled for delivery next year.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that when there’s no competition, there’s no cost control,” McCain said last month. “That certainly has been the case with the Gerald R. Ford.”

The Navy has said the extra $2.4 billion is due in part to construction delays and the difficulties of developing and installing new technologies. The service argues that future carriers should be less expensive.

The next two ships in the Ford class – the John F. Kennedy and the new Enterprise – are to be delivered in the 2020s. The Navy will have 11 carriers when the Ford is ready – a fleet size mandated by Congress.

Huntington Ingalls spokeswoman Jerri Fuller Dickseski said the company won’t comment on the Navy’s study. “Our role is not to determine what the mission will be. Our role is to support the Navy in supporting the mission,” she said.

Dickseski stressed that the shipyard has been working with the Navy to control carrier construction cost, including adjusting production and implementing new procedures to reduce labor hours.

Suppliers and other subcontractors also are feeling the pressure to control costs, said Rick Giannini, president of Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition. The group’s members include about 400 companies in 44 states that provide parts or services for carrier production in Newport News.

“They’re taking a little more aggressive steps these days in terms of working directly with suppliers…. It’s not going to go away,” said Giannini, president of Wisconsin-based Milwaukee Valve, which supplies most of the valves for carriers.

Giannini argues that having one carrier builder is a good thing.

“I don’t think this country needs two places. We don’t build enough of them,” he said.

Clark, the defense analyst, said much will depend on whether the Navy wants a larger force of smaller carriers. He acknowledged that other changes, such as development of unmanned aircraft, could affect the decision.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus predicted that unmanned systems will replace piloted fighter jets in the not-so-distant future.

The F-35 strike fighters, the next generation jets now being developed, “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned striker fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,” Mabus said earlier this month.

Given that a key strength of carriers is their ability to launch fighter jets almost continuously over extended periods of time, Clark said, pilot-less aircraft may have greater endurance and not need to return to the carrier as frequently. It could mean fewer aircraft are needed to deliver the same punch, he said.

Even with those possible advantages, Clark doubts that building more – but smaller – carriers would save money in the long run. They still would need the protective task force of ships that sail with them. And those flattops may cost less, but they won’t be cheap.

“If you can get it down to $6 billion or $7 billion, it would still be the single most expensive thing they would buy,” he said.

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