NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - This sprawling shipyard along two miles of James River waterfront is humming.
More than 20,000 employees of Newport News Shipbuilding are building a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, rebuilding another one, starting work on another new flattop and working on parts of at least six new nuclear submarines. The yard is constantly making upgrades and improvements, and is working to complete a new submarine construction facility as part of an expansion to build two subs per year.
The present is definitely sunny for the only shipyard in the world able to build nuclear carriers and submarines. But, like the rest of the U.S. defense industry, a dark cloud could appear in the near future in the form of budget cuts - possibly threatening each of the major programs underway here.
"It would affect all the wrong things," shipyard President Matt Mulherin said Aug. 17 of reports that the Navy is considering delays in the carrier building program. "It moves everything in the wrong direction."
A reduction in the carrier building rate would affect numerous areas, Mulherin said. From the fragile carrier industrial base to the employment of skilled shipyard workers, the nation's ability to continue to build carriers could be threatened.
"It makes it difficult," he said.
Newport News makes about one-third of its revenue from carrier construction, another third from building submarines and the rest from the carrier refueling overhauls. The Navy, as part of its internal discussions on ways to reduce its budget, has considered stretching the current one-ship-every-five-years carrier construction rate to one every six or seven years. Other factions in the Obama administration reportedly are urging skipping a building cycle altogether.
Other discussions are said to include a reduction in the current 11-ship carrier force, possibly leading to cancellations of the refueling overhauls, sending ships to the scrap yard rather than refueling them.
The Navy only recently reached its goal to build two submarines in one year, marking the culmination of years of effort by the Navy and its submarine builders - General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News to bring down the cost of new subs. That build rate could also be threatened by a declining shipbuilding budget.
Navy officials emphasize that no decisions have been made and deliberations continue, but until all is revealed with February's new budget submissions, a lingering sense of unease is unavoidable.
"How this ultimately plays out in a steady or declining budget scenario is unclear," Mike Petters, president of parent company Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) told reporters Aug. 11. "What is certain is that naval shipbuilders are going to be tasked with providing the highest-quality ships at the lowest possible cost."
New Carrier Shaping Up
But for now, Newport News is cooking.
The enormous gantry crane over Dry Dock 12 - the largest such dock in the Western Hemisphere - still proclaims "Northrop Grumman," but everywhere else, signs of the shipyard's former management are disappearing.
"A Huntington Ingalls Industries company" sign adorns the main administration building, reflecting the recent spinoff from the defense industry giant.
Newport News, along with the Ingalls and Avondale shipyards on the Gulf Coast, are the primary facilities of HII, created March 31 from Northrop's shipbuilding activities.
The moniker on the gantry is lingering, but not for much longer.
"That sign will get repainted in December during a scheduled maintenance period," said Ken Mahler, the yard's vice president for naval programs.
Beneath the gantry, the world's largest warship is taking shape. The company announced Aug. 18 that more than half the structural production of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) has been completed, with 250 of 500 large units hoisted into place. The gantry was recently upgraded from a 900-metric-ton capacity to 1,050 metric tons, and in May it performed a 945-ton "superlift" of a stern section.
Assembled from huge modular subsections, the Ford is forming into what will become a 1,092-foot-long warship. Nearly 900 feet of the ship's length is in place, said carrier construction director Sam Vreeland. The stern will be set early in September, and the bow sections installed before the end of the year. Amidships, the engineering spaces are complete and the Ford is built up to the hangar deck. More than 23,000 tons of the ship's eventual 48,000 tons of steel are now in the dock, and construction is about 22 percent complete.
The first of a new class of carriers, Ford is scheduled to be launched in July 2013 and delivered to the Navy in September 2015.
A December Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) from the Pentagon estimated an increase of about a half-billion dollars in the ship's total costs by the time of completion. Mulherin acknowledged the cost increases, which he said were attributable to increases in the cost of steel - more than half the growth - along with quantity changes and increased labor costs.
Mulherin declined to cite specific numbers in terms of the overages and monthly performance reports, but he said the trends are positive.
"We've had 10 months of consecutive improvement on cost performance," he said. "Our vision is to get back to target performance on the contract. We're on a path to get to where we want to be."
Focusing on a wide range of improving efficiencies throughout the construction process, Mulherin said he hopes to erase the overages by the time the ship is delivered in 2015.
"We have a lot of time. We've just got to get going," he said.
The Navy, through the Naval Sea Systems Command, noted that the detail design and construction contract for the ship "is being executed within the funding currently appropriated for the program."
Spending for the ship is capped by Congress at $11.8 billion in 2008 dollars, NAVSEA said in August.
"CVN 78 remains within that cost cap," the command said.
In the middle of the yard, sections of new Virginia-class submarines are readied for shipment north to the Electric Boat (EB) yard at Groton, Conn., or moved into place for assembly at Newport News. The shipyard is teamed equally with EB on a 50-50 work share on the subs, with Newport News building each boat's bow, stern and sail sections.
A new modular outfitting facility under construction next to the submarine building sheds will be devoted to bow sections when it is completed in October 2012, said Chris Miner, the shipyard's Virginia-class submarine program director. The facility is part of the yard's expansion to handle the increased submarine building rate.
The next Newport News-launched submarine is the Minnesota (SSN 783); the keel was laid May 20. The submarines are assembled under cover, then rolled out and lowered into a dry dock for launch.
The bow of the North Dakota (SSN 784) is nearby, featuring the new Virginia Payload Tube. Two of the new, 87.5-inch diameter tubes, derived from the payload tubes of Ohio-class SSGN guided-missile submarines, will be installed in new submarines from 784 on, replacing the 12 vertical launch system tubes in earlier submarines that can each carry a Tomahawk cruise missile.
The new tubes are built at Electric Boat's Quonset Point, R.I., facility and shipped to Virginia. Most major components of the class are barged down the coast to either EB's assembly yard at Groton, Conn., or to Newport News.
The barge, named Sea Shuttle, was built by Electric Boat especially for submarine programs, and is kept quite busy, Miner said, making an average of three round trips per month.
Rebuilding the Old
Tied up near the south end of the shipyard is the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, completed by Newport News in 1986. The ship returned to the yard in August 2009 for a refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH), a major work package that includes a one-time-only refueling of the carrier's two nuclear reactors.
Newport News has been handling all the Nimitz-class carrier RCOH overhauls, each of which costs more than $3 billion but adds about 23 years to the ship's service life. Roosevelt, the fourth RCOH, was refloated from dry dock in May but will not leave until the end of 2012 or early 2013.
The yard already has received long-lead contracts to prepare for the next ship, the Abraham Lincoln, expected to arrive as the Roosevelt leaves.
The Roosevelt remains in commission, and its crew of about 2,300 sailors is buzzing all over the ship, joining 3,800 shipyard workers in refurbishing more than 2,300 compartments, disassembling, cleaning and repairing thousands of components, and installing new and upgraded equipment and systems.
Capt. Douglas Verissimo, the ship's executive officer, said the crew size dropped to a low of nearly 2,000 at one point, but is now building and will eventually return to its normal level of about 2,800 sailors.
All four catapults are being rebuilt under construction sheds, along with three of the four arresting gear engine sets. "You don't get much use on the No. 1 wire," Verissimo said of the arresting gear, since most aircraft engage one of the other wires.
The overhaul is contracted to take 41 months, but the goal is to get it completed in 39, Verissimo said. The project is about 5 to 6 percent under its projected cost, he added.
Newport News, the birthplace of new carriers, also is taking part in their death. Planning contracts already have been awarded to prepare to defuel the Enterprise, first of the nuclear carrier breed, when that ship is decommissioned in 2013. For its final disposal, the ship will be towed around South America for final recycling at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash.
Regardless of the future, Newport News seems assured that it will continue to build and help dispose of the Navy's nuclear warships. But the buzz along the James may diminish before too long.