This article has been updated to include a statement from ST Engineering.
WASHINGTON — Bollinger Shipyards this week said it will acquire shipyards VT Halter Marine and ST Engineering Halter Marine Offshore from parent company ST Engineering, a deal one expert said may have been spurred by the Navy’s slow pace in awarding the contracts expected to go to smaller shipyards.
The transaction offers Bollinger additional new construction and repair expertise. Bollinger, which has 14 shipyards in Louisiana, said it will gain 378 acres, including two shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., and two dormant yards north of Pascagoula. Bollinger will pay Singapore-based ST Engineering $15 million now, and may pay as much as $10 million more in the future based on additional awards for programs VT Halter has on contract today, according to a statement ST Engineering sent to Defense News.
Bollinger is on contract to build the Sentinel-class fast response cutter for the U.S. Coast Guard. It is also building some Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue (T-ATS) ships, though the Navy awarded the last four ships to Austal USA in Alabama.
In the spring, the Navy surprised the industry by awarding the Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vessel program — something Textron had been developing for years — to a team of Bollinger, HII and Raytheon Technologies.
VT Halter, for its part, is on contract to build the Coast Guard’s polar security cutter; Bollinger would absorb that icebreaker work through the acquisition. The Senate wants to give the Coast Guard $841 million to buy the third ship of the class in fiscal 2023.
The U.S. Navy’s future fleet design calls for a larger number of smaller ships, allowing for distributed maritime operations that spread out Navy firepower and logistics. This new reliance on smaller ships was expected to create more opportunities for smaller yards who haven’t been able to build Navy warships in the past, but could be well suited for small logistics ships and unmanned vessels. The Coast Guard, too, is recapitalizing several classes of ships, creating further opportunity.
Both companies competed for but lost the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter program in 2016. More recently, Bollinger and VT Halter each won a preliminary design contract for the Navy’s future light amphibious warship program, which the Navy awarded to five companies last year.
Bollinger also won an early design contract for the Large USV program in 2020 and for the next-generation logistics ship in late 2021.
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute, called the acquisition “unexpected, but not surprising.”
“Although the Navy has smaller ships coming, they have been slow to materialize. Each of the smaller ship classes or USVs has a vaguely defined concept and could take another decade to be built in volume,” he told Defense News this week. “Shipbuilders cannot afford to wait until the Navy establishes a sustained rhythm of construction to regain viability,”
On the light amphibious warship, for example, the Navy originally planned to award a detail design and construction contract in FY22. That was pushed back to FY25.
The next-generation logistics ship, which went into research and development alongside the light amphib in FY21, won’t begin production until FY26.
The LUSV program, too, has seen delays. It first appeared in the FY20 budget as a research and development program, with the Navy planning to buy two prototypes a year for five years. The Navy instead bought just two LUSV prototypes.
The sea service later said it would begin a program of record in FY23, but that has been postponed to FY25 as the Navy and Congress opted for additional early steps meant to reduce risk, including establishing land-based testing sites for the autonomous boats.
These small yards are also facing large competitors. For the light amphib, for instance, Ingalls Shipbuilding had eyed the program, and Fincantieri and Austal are among those who won design contracts. HII, Fincantieri and Austal are also among those who won design contracts for the LUSV program, even though the ship is much smaller than the warships they typically build.
At the same time, Clark said, a recent recapitalization of the U.S. commercial fleet means there are limited near-term ship orders expected from the private sector.
“As a result, smaller builders like Halter and Bollinger are looking for ways to reduce costs, one of which is mergers and acquisitions that allow efficiencies in overhead,” Clark said.
ST Engineering said in a statement provided to Defense News that the company lost $256 million across both VT Halter Marine and ST Engineering Halter Marine Offshore from 2017 to 2021. A financial advisor helped the company search for potential buyers among strategic investors and private equity funds, and Bollinger was selected as the most suitable buyer based on its ability to add value to the work these two yards are already doing.
Bollinger said in a Nov. 13 statement that the acquisition has been completed.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.