NavWeek: Happy Hunting

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It’s out with the old and in with the new – even if the new is still a bit uncertain – for Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), the nation’s biggest U.S. Navy shipbuilder.

Everyone in maritime circles is more than a bit familiar with HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, which builds and maintains the nation’s carriers and partners on submarine programs. And Mississippi’s Ingalls Shipbuilding of another stalwart, known for destroyers, amphibious ships and Coast Guard cutters at its yard in Pascagoula.

Both of those yards are going strong and there’s every indication to think they will continue to do so for some years.

That’s not the case for the Ingalls Shipbuilding's Gulfport Composite Center of Excellence in Gulfport, Miss. or the Avondale Shipyard in Avondale, La.

The Gulfport center, the company says, “is very unique to the shipbuilding business. The 120-acre site specializes in composite shipbuilding supporting U.S. Navy programs. Gulfport has the demonstrated capability to construct marine composite structures ranging from small combatant craft (200 ft.) to lightweight aerospace structures. Supporting the construction capability is a highly trained and capable workforce of nearly 500.”

Gulfport has been building composite masts for the LPD-17 amphibious ship program since 2001. The after mast system is a detachable, octagonal structure 93 ft. high and 35 ft. in diameter constructed of a multilayer, frequency-selective material designed to allow passage of specific radio frequencies while effectively reflecting others.

The facility also is the sole provider of the composite deckhouses and hangars for the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers. “The next generation of marine composite technology, these carbon fiber composite structures provide incredible strength and operational capability for the nation's next generation of surface warships,” the company says.

But the Navy needs to save money and has opted to go with a steel deckhouse for the DDG-1002 destroyer, ending the production line at the center.

“Regarding the DDG-1001, we remain on track to deliver the deck house from our Gulfport facility in the second quarter,” HII CEO Michael Petters told investment analysts in a quarterly results conference call May 8. “Following completion of this work and the composite mast for LPD-27, we will proceed with the shutdown of the Gulfport facility.”

A similar fate may await Avondale. The shipyard, the company says, “has a rich and colorful 70-year-old history in Jefferson Parish and remains a legendary and prodigious presence in the world of shipbuilding today. The company was founded as Avondale Marine Ways in 1938 at the site of an abandoned railroad ferry crossing no longer in use as a result of the construction of the Huey P. Long Railroad Bridge across the Mississippi River. This original location on the west bank of Jefferson Parish remains the present site of the 268-acre shipyard, about 10 miles upriver from downtown New Orleans. Today, Avondale is the largest private manufacturing employer in Louisiana with about 4,800 employees and represents nearly $1 billion of economic impact to the state.”

HII adds, “Throughout more than seven decades of continuous operation Avondale has produced more than 300 ships and vessels.”

But, Petters says, “At Avondale, unit construction for LPD-27 will continue through the third quarter of 2014. As you know, we recently announced the establishment of a joint study group with Kinder Morgan Energy Partners. The study group has been tasked to evaluate best-use opportunities for redeveloping Avondale. If an economically viable best use of the facility is determined, the companies may pursue the formation of a joint venture to redevelop the Avondale site together. However, as I've said before, if we are unsuccessful on these efforts, we will proceed with our plan of record and close the facility.”

But HII holds out hope – not only at Avondale, but for new business altogether. “In our industry today,” Petters says, “you see everybody wrestling with how do we create growth in an environment where the Pentagon is not advertising a lot of growth. Some folks are talking about international, we're not talking about international. Some folks are talking about commercializing and leading; we are cautious about that, but we do believe that there are some things that we can do and some customers that we can engage with that would enhance the value of this business. And so we're going to keep our eyes open for that moving forward.”

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