For many years, Huntington Ingalls Industries' massive shipyard here was both a birthplace and maintenance yard for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Now it is also where the world's largest warships come to be gutted, as the first nuclear-powered carrier has reached the end of its life.
This is the lone shipyard that can produce new ships as well as maintain and inactivate existing ones. Of the three activities, the two most promising appear to be Ford-class construction and ship inactivations—the U.S. will need newer and better carriers and must properly and safely secure the nuclear-powered ships it no longer uses. The shipyard is now testing the U.S. Navy's newest carrier, the CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford.
“We need this ship,” said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, as he stood under the Ford's bow after the ship's christening last month. “We need it badly. It brings so much to the fleet. It's got adaptability. It's got speed, volume and persistence, with so many different payloads.”
But cost and schedule issues remain a priority for the program, for which costs have already ballooned by more than $2 billion. Key subsystems have yet to be integrated and tested, despite the christening.
“The Navy faces technical, design and construction challenges to completing [the Ford] that have led to significant cost increases and reduced the likelihood that a fully functional ship will be delivered on time,” says the(GAO). And the Pentagon should delay contract awards for the next carrier in the class, the CVN-79 John F. Kennedy, because of programmatic “shortfalls,” the GAO adds.
Newport News Shipbuilding Vice President Ken Mahler acknowledges the Ford was a $10.5 billion ship that grew to about $12.9 billion. He attributes the overruns to a combination of costlier government equipment, major design changes and first-of-class production challenges. “All of that goes away with the Kennedy,” he says. “The 79 is going to be a lower-cost ship.”
Both Greenert and Huntington Ingalls CEO Michael Petters note that the Ford is the heaviest carrier launched because it has been outfitted as much as possible early on, cutting down on more expensive work later. Greenert says he now needs to ensure that requirements remain rational: “What would I will be willing to de-scope so that the builder has a stable design?”
The Navy and Newport News Shipbuilding are looking to develop a production-line structure for aircraft carriers as much as possible. While carriers are too large and take too long to develop for an assembly-line model, segments of the process can be standardized.
The yard is approximating this in its refueling complex overhaul (RCOH) work, although that is the most vulnerable financially as lawmakers consider retiring Nimitz-class carriers earlier, rather than funding expensive overhauls. “One of things we're most concerned about are the discussions of taking out a RCOH and [going straight to] inactivation,” Mahler says.
Assembly-line production is more than just a matter of equipment and processes; it is also about training and retaining the right workforce. If Congress decides to inactivate Nimitz-class carriers rather than overhaul them, company officials say the yard would lose that waterfront know-how, which would be costly to restore.
“If you gap the RCOH, you lose the learning curve,” says Chris Miner, Newport News Shipbuilding vice president of in-service aircraft carrier programs “It's like starting back to the first ship of the Nimitz class.”
Moreover, that extensive overhaul experience has prepared the shipyard to put together contracts and make ready for inactivations so that it can engage in the newest and potentially most solid line of business: disposing of old carriers. The first up is the oldest in the fleet, the CVN-65 Enterprise.
“It's a cost-plus-incentive contract,” Miner says. “How we manage the program is really no different. Our scrutiny, our standards, our level of detail, the qualifications for folks are no different.”
The yard does put more emphasis on the nuclear-related work. “We have more qualified radiation and defueling people on Enterprise,” Miner says. “Without refueling, you are draining, drying and closing up in a permanent fashion. You're closing up the reactor.”
For the shipyard, however, the end of a nuclear-powered carrier represents the beginning of a guaranteed line of business: At some point, the ships will all have to be inactivated.