ARLINGTON, Va. — Ingalls Shipbuilding has enough contractual orders to keep its workforce and suppliers busy for the next few years, but the situation becomes more uncertain beyond that time frame, according to the shipyard’s president.
The yard may see a “lull” in the five- to 15-year time frame, based on the most recent plans from the U.S. Navy, but Ingalls hopes for better news about the fate of the San Antonio-class production line in the upcoming fiscal 2024 budget request.
Though the Navy has high praise for the ships and the production line at the HII shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, the service last year requested to end that amphibious transport dock production line for financial reasons.
Kari Wilkinson, who leads Ingalls Shipbuilding, said she can currently manage her workforce and supply chain based on existing contracts, including two amphibious assault ships, four amphibious transport docks, eight destroyers and two national security cutters.
“Transparency is always good, so we are communicating with [suppliers] continually about what we anticipate,” she told Defense News during a Jan. 10 media roundtable at the Surface Navy Association conference. “But first and foremost is the conversation with the customer.”
Even ahead of a contract award, if Ingalls is confident the Navy has a desire to buy a certain ship, it can take steps to ensure it maintains “peak efficiency — don’t lose people, make sure our facility is being utilized to the most efficient extent it can be,” she explained.
Some of those steps are already in the works, she said. For example, all the steel for the amphibious assault ships — the largest ship class built at the yard — comes in early through advanced procurement, and the shipyard can schedule much of that steel work as needed based on other workloads at the facility, lessening the burden on the workforce and particular shops.
She declined to specify when she would no longer be able to take further measures, and at what point the yard would need more new ships on contract — or face disruption — noting that “things are really dynamic right now.”
“We are blessed and don’t have a lull projected in our future for years down the road,” she told reporters, adding that she’s working to prevent that lull in outyears if something doesn’t change.
Ingalls’ shipbuilding experience includes supporting four parallel production lines: San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks, America-class amphibious assault ships, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and the Coast Guard’s Legend-class national security cutter.
The company is nearing final trials and delivery of the second-to-last cutter this year, she said. The Coast Guard will receive the final cutter in 2025 or 2026, she added.
The Navy proposed truncating the amphibious transport dock’s production line in the FY23 budget request, but Congress pushed back. It’s unclear where the debate over the ships will go, with some hoping this year’s budget submission — following a complex study on the Navy and Marine Corps’ amphibious warship requirements — may shed some light on that.
In discussing Ingalls’ destroyer and amphibious ship production lines, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said at the conference that “all those lines right now are strong. We need to continue, in my opinion, to invest in them.”
But he had previously brought up a rack-and-stack approach for the current budgeting process, in which items are prioritized based on need, with readiness as a top concern and the size of the fleet a lesser concern, and the cutoff line gets drawn based on the top line the Pentagon gives the Navy. Amphibs did not make the cut last year.
The Navy also proposed buying the America-class amphibious assault ships further apart than the shipyard wants, risking disruption to the workforce if builders can’t go straight from one ship to the next.
The destroyer line is the only one fully supported in the current budget plans; the debate is whether the Navy should buy a combined two per year from Ingalls and General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works as planned, or bump up to three per year like lawmakers want.
At the very least, Ingalls needs more work to replace the cutter line. Wilkinson said she is “very interested” in joining the Constellation-class frigate program as a second construction yard, if the Navy chooses to pursue a higher build rate later this decade. She said this work must be secured “in a handful of years” to avoid a disruption.
But winning the frigate work will be tough, as other yards also consider it important to their future plans. If the San Antonio-class LPD program were to go away, Ingalls would be in an even tougher position of having to replace half its workload or risk harm to the workforce and supply base.
The yard has pursued some repair and modernization work — repairing the destroyer Fitzgerald after its 2017 collision, and recently winning a contract to begin planning future modernization work for the Zumwalt class of destroyers. But Wilkinson said maintenance planning and execution is a separate skill set than new construction, and isn’t a perfect solution to the yard’s challenges.
Really, she wants to see more LPDs in the budget plans.
“The LPDs are a super efficient line right now,” she said.
“We’d want to see LPDs continue on roughly two-year centers,” she continued, referring to the space between starting one ship and the next in a production line. “LHAs continue on four-year centers, DDGs continue on nine- to 12-month centers, depending on what the customer needs. And we’ll look at any other opportunities [the Navy] would like us to look at.”
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.