The U.S. Navy continued to anchor its current and future aircraft carrier fleet in late September with more contracts to improve and build the vessels.

The largest investment was a $296 million contract modification, under a previously awarded contract, to Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding unit for continuation of long-lead-time material procurement for and advance construction of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier CVN-79 John F. Kennedy.

The contract modification helps funds Newport News’ work to continue preparations for the Kennedy’s construction, including engineering and planning efforts along with additional advance material procurement and complex component manufacturing. Long-lead-time materials include advanced weapons elevators, pumps, propellers, steel plate, piping and fittings.

The Kennedy is the second ship in the CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford class, the Navy’s next generation of nuclear aircraft carriers. The Ford class incorporates many improvements and is designed to reduce total ownership cost compared with that of the Nimitz class. The Kennedy’s first steel was cut in December 2010, and delivery to the Navy is scheduled no later than 2022.

“Advance construction and procurement enables us to transition smoothly from Ford into the bulk of Kennedy’s construction starting in 2013, efficiently,” says Mike Shawcross, Newport News vice president of John F. Kennedy construction. “We are working hard with the Navy to make the entire class more affordable, and we are taking full advantage of the lessons we are learning while building Ford and applying them to Kennedy. We are always looking at ways to improve carrier construction at the shipyard — from changes in how work flows through the yard to engaging our suppliers for their ideas that could improve efficiency.”

Cost-reduction measures, the company says, include maximizing work in earlier stages of construction where it can be done more efficiently, resequencing unit construction to build similar units repetitively, decreasing the number of lifts required to erect the ship, increasing overall ship completion levels at major key events, and improvements to processes and tools that increase productivity.

The Navy also awarded Newport News a $7.5 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for propulsion plant systems engineering for Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers, the current workhorse vessels in the Navy’s fleet. Work includes alterations, repairs and maintenance and is expected to be completed by September 2013.

While the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding plans appear to be falling short, the service seems dedicated to keeping its carrier force intact, a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report says.

“Under the 2013 plan, the Navy envisions buying 222 combat ships — aircraft carriers, submarines, large and small surface combatants, and amphibious warfare ships — between 2013 and 2042,” CBO notes in its report on the service’s fiscal 2013 shipbuilding plan.

While the total is 17 ships more than under the 2012 plan, CBO says, “Those purchases would still leave the Navy short of its inventory objectives for attack submarines, large surface combatants, and amphibious warfare ships for significant parts of the 2013–2042 period.”

But CBO notes, ”For aircraft carriers, by contrast, the Navy would meet or exceed its goal of 11 ships throughout the 2013–2042 time frame, except for the periods from 2013 to 2015 and from 2040 to 2042.”