Craig Perciavalle, president of Austal USA, walks the production line at the company's shipyard in Mobile, Ala. In the background is the newly manufactured deckhouse for the littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
MOBILE, ALA. — This shipyard across from downtown Mobile is — quite literally — on a roll. Huge aluminum components of littoral combat ships (LCS) and joint high speed vessels (JHSVs) are coming out of the sprawling manufacturing facility, placed on specialized, motorized transporters, and rolled a few hundred yards to the assembly halls. Pieces of ships large and small are all along the production lines, as both ship types have hit full-rate production.
To get to this point, Austal USA has added facilities for ship construction and shipyard management. Along with the shipyard expansion, the state of Alabama opened a maritime training center nearby, and the work force has exploded, from 800 employees in fall 2009 to about 4,000 today.
The facilities expansion plan for manufacturing and company facilities is nearly complete. A parcel of waterfront acquired in late 2012 is being modified as a completion facility, allowing ships to be fitted out in a protected berth away from river traffic. When completed in early 2015, the Austal capitalization plan will be virtually finished.
Driving all this development are the US Navy’s two major littoral ship construction programs. Austal USA, which took over the prime contractor role of LCS 2 Independence-class ships from General Dynamics beginning with the third ship, is set to deliver the second ship, Coronado, and on Dec. 14 launched the Jackson, first of a 10-ship block-buy contract. The third JHSV will be delivered early this year, and the fourth was christened Jan. 11. Ten JHSVs will be built.
“We are real excited about what we are doing here and what our platforms can provide,” Craig Perciavalle, president of Austal USA, said last month. “We feel the affordability and the capability of the ships will put us in a situation where we are hoping the government will leverage those capabilities we have here for a long time to come.”
Coronado will leave shortly for San Diego, where it will join sister ship Independence. Major components for the next two ships — Montgomery and Gabrielle Giffords — are already fabricated.
Moving parallel to the LCS down the facility’s production line is the JHSV. At one end, flat plates of aluminum are laid out for both types, but by the time they reach the opposite end of the building they’re fashioned into swirling curves and sweeping shapes to form LCS and JHSV hulls.
Two JHSVs have been delivered, and the first, Spearhead, deploys soon on a cruise to the 4thFleet region in Central and Latin America. Millinocket, the third ship, completed builder’s sea trials Dec. 13, and the Fall River will be launched in mid-January.
Delivery of the last JHSV is scheduled for mid-2017, but Perciavalle hopes to build more ships. “We still feel there are opportunities for extending both programs, especially now that the Navy has received delivery of the first two joint high speeds. We do not feel the program is dead after 10, and we are going to continue to pursue other opportunities to extend that program.”
The company remains hopeful about continuing LCS construction as well.
“We feel that as these ships get delivered and they sell themselves, we will be in a competitive advantage based on the affordability to be able to extend both of them,” he said. “Beyond that, we keep our eyes on the ball on other potentials as far as concept design development, on other solutions to provide to the Navy.”
Austal USA is a subsidiary of Austal Ltd., based in Perth, Australia. While the JHSV and LCS hulls are derived from designs first developed Down Under, the US company maintains its own design team.
“We are self-sufficient in our design capabilities,” Perciavalle said, noting his engineering department’s 250 employees. “We have the ability to move forward with any design to sustain the business. No doubt, we would leverage the intellectual property and expertise they have in Perth, but we would do it ourselves here. And we have that latitude to be able to do that.”
Cost growth on the first two littoral combat ships has been well documented, but Perciavalle claimed the Austal-prime ships are on target.
“We are meeting our cost performance objectives on LCS 6 going forward, as of now,” he declared. “And we are coming down a very good learning curve.” ■