WASHINGTON — New US Navy shipbuilding programs to buy fleet oilers, a big-deck amphibious assault ship and a new class of amphibious dock ships are being tied together in a bid to increase competition and lower costs.

The plan, first briefed to industry in January by Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley, will allow only two shipyards — Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and General Dynamics' National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) in San Diego — to bid on the T-AO(X) fleet oiler, the LHA 8 assault ship, and the LX(R) class of amphibious ships.

"This competition will be limited to General Dynamics NASSCO and Ingalls Shipbuilding," Cmdr. Thurraya Kent, Stackley's spokesperson, confirmed Friday.

Under the plan, the shipyard that does not receive the T-AO(X) contract to design and build the first six oilers will build the assault ship.

While other shipyards have shown expressed interest in the programs — particularly the oiler — Kent noted that Ingalls and NASSCO "are the only two sources with the capability to build both LHA 8 and T-AO(X) and the requisite knowledge of amphibious/auxiliary ship design, construction and systems to efficiently and effectively construct the large deck amphibious and auxiliary ships within the required construction period and perform the associated services."

NASSCO's T-AO(X) design

Photo Credit: NASSCO

Stackley has a reputation for introducing competition at multiple stages in shipbuilding programs, and has sought to reduce costs at all levels of construction. Multi-layered competitive approaches have been applied, for example, to the Navy's destroyer and Littoral Combat Ship programs.

Huntington Ingalls design for the US Navy's T-AO(X) fleet oiler competition.

Photo Credit: HII

"This approach," she added, "balances the Navy's commitment to maintaining a viable shipbuilding industrial base while aggressively pursuing competition."

Funding for the first T-AO(X) is included in the fiscal 2016 budget request, due to be made public Monday. The Navy intends to ask for one ship in 2016, then one each year beginning in 2018. Plans call for at least eight ships to be ordered through 2024.

The competition being put together now by the Navy includes only the first six oilers — presumably, bidding on the seventh ship and beyond will be handled under a different basis.

The LHA 8 is a single ship, programmed for 2017. According to fleet planning documents made public in 2014, sister ships are planned for 2020, 2022 and 2024.

The Navy builds both LHA and LHD assault ships to very similar designs. To date, Ingalls has built all 15 of those ships.

The design of the LX(R), the Navy and Marine Corps have decided, will be based on the LPD 17 San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships, needed to replace existing LSD amphibious dock ships. The first LX(R) is to be funded in 2020, with single ships in 2022 and 2024. More will follow later in the 2020s. Ingalls builds all LPD 17-class ships.

A request for proposal (RFP) for the oiler program is expected very soon, and may include more details about the competition.

Navy sources stressed that the plan is to keep both Ingalls and NASSCO viable.

"This procurement approach will provide approximately an equivalent value of effort at Ingalls and at NASSCO that would adequately sustain both shipyards," said one source said. "This strategy will preserve a balanced and stable shipbuilding industrial base and sources of supply for LHA 8 and T-AO(X) and ensures competition for the construction of current and future classes of amphibious and auxiliary ships."

Under the plan, the shipyard that which does not receive the T-AO(X) contract to design and build the first six oilers will build the assault ship.

"The offeror with the lowest combined LHA 8 and T-AO(X) total evaluated price will be awarded the majority of LX(R) contract design engineering man-hours," the source said.

Each shipyard said it was they were eager to see details of the Navy's plan.

"While we have yet to see the RFP, Huntington Ingalls Industries has a demonstrated record of success in building high quality and affordable amphibious warships and fleet auxiliary ships where lessons learned are leveraged to create the best value for our Navy customer and for America," said Ingalls spokeswoman Beci Brenton.

"We fully support the Navy's efforts for competition on the T-AO(X), LHA and LX(R) programs," said Steve Eckberg, director of government programs for General Dynamics NASSCO. "NASSCO has been on contract with the Navy for the past year in support of cost reduction studies and design improvement initiatives for all three programs. We are well positioned to provide the Navy with affordable designs that will meet the cost targets."