NEWPORT NEWS SHIPBUILDING, Va. — As the U.S. Navy urges Congress to buy its next two aircraft carriers in a single contract, as it did for the most recent two, the service and manufacturer HII say the two-carrier approach has kept CVNs 80 and 81 on time and budget.
Despite record-setting inflation levels, HII already has on contract more than 80% of material for the future Enterprise (CVN-80) and 65% of material for the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), shielding the Navy from soaring costs.
Placing orders for two ships shortly after the contract was signed in January 2019 also meant many lower-level vendors had a backlog of work going into the COVID-19 pandemic, giving them stability when many companies had to lay off workers or shut down.
And new digital shipbuilding efforts and an improved manufacturing strategy informed by lessons learned on USS Gerald R. Ford and the future John F. Kennedy are translating into saved time and money. Doris Miller may cost as much as 40% less than Ford did in same-year dollars, Capt. Brian Metcalf, the Navy’s program manager for new aircraft carrier construction, told reporters.
That, according to Navy and HII program officials, is a solid reason to buy the next two aircraft carriers in their proposed 2-3-4 plan: two carriers, with three years of advanced procurement funding, with the carriers spaced four years apart.
HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding and Navy officials spoke to reporters ahead of the keel laying ceremony for the Enterprise — a celebration marking the start of ship construction, as the first major piece of the ship’s bottom is lifted into the dry dock where the ship will be built.
Chris Kastner, HII’s president and chief executive, told reporters the two-carrier buy for Enterprise and Doris missile “just makes perfect sense” due to buying material in larger quantities, planning smoother construction schedules, predicting labor and capital improvement needs and more.
The Navy projected it would save $4 billion across the two ships due solely to the two-ship contract structure.
Kastner said inflation that has surged since that contract has made the approach even more important.
“We were able to place the vast majority of the orders for 81 before that inflation — so just smart buying by the Navy and the nation and HII, a good strategy to get that that ship underway,” he said.
Brian Fields, the vice president of CVN 80 and 81 programs at Newport News Shipbuilding, told reporters the two-ship approach “allows us to keep our workforce stable and allows our industrial partners to keep their factories open and stable, keep hot production lines going, and provide the best chance to meet schedules and budgets.”
Metcalf said the Navy is working internally on a pitch for the next two-ship buy. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan notes a decision by the Pentagon and Congress must be made no later than fiscal 2025.
In early talks with Congress, he said, “we’ve sent them several scenarios. The scenario that we believe is optimal is two ships every eight years, on four-year centers,” meaning four years between each ship.
“With the advanced procurement funding, typically we’ve gotten two years. We’ve learned now that we probably need about three years,” Metcalf added. “Lead times have gone up nationwide — if you order something, that takes a lot longer than it used to to get here. That’s not untrue here in the shipyard.”
Much of that pitch for the upcoming CVNs 82 and 83 comes down to the health of the supply base, which Kastner called the biggest challenge to the program because there are so many vendors who are the sole suppliers of the product they manufacture.
Rick Giannini, the chairman of the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition, told reporters at the media event the group surveyed about 158 of its 2,000 suppliers in February, and 90% responded that a seven-year center between aircraft carriers would be extremely difficult for their company and workforce. He said 88% responded that six-year centers would be extremely difficult, and 61% said five-year centers would be a challenge.
The first three ships of the Ford class of aircraft carriers were bought on five-year centers, but the program office and industrial base are pushing for four-year centers for future carriers.
“Over 50% more of the material is placed on [CVN-]81 than it was on [CVN-]80″ at a similar stage, Metcalf said. “That advantage to the industrial base, to companies spread all over the country, is huge. They’ve got back orders, they can hire, they can plan capital investments in their particular facilities. It’s a security for the American workforce.
Metcalf noted the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford will go on its first deployment this fall, making it more critical to protect the industrial base.
“That same vendor base that’s supplying the equipment on 80 and 81 is spooling up to answer the demand signal from an in-service ship,” Metcalf said. “As things break, or as maintenance happens, that all goes into the planning.”
A new way to build carriers
In addition to buying Enterprise and Doris Miller differently, Newport News Shipbuilding is also building them in a new way.
Gerald R. Ford was designed completely digitally, with 3D product models rather than paper drawings. But for Ford and John F. Kennedy, the yard then printed out paper work instructions for the workforce to use as they manufactured parts and built the ship.
For Enterprise, not a single paper work instruction has been printed — builders carry laptops or tablets, giving them access to much more information and helping them move faster.
“It gives our shipbuilders the opportunity to understand visually what is it that they’re supposed to be doing,” Fields said. “With the amount of new shipbuilders that we’re bringing into the company now and over the next five or 10 years, we see that their time to proficiency is collapsing. We’re able to give them harder jobs without the same oversight because they know what’s being asked of them.”
Fatima Medina, a pipefitter apprentice who joined the shipyard after graduating high school in 2020, showed off her ruggedized laptop and digital work instructions during the media event.
She displayed a job for installing a section of piping in the jet fuel distribution system — something that previously could have required numerous papers outlining the complex piping system that would have to be carried to the job site.
Instead, Medina said she has access to all the reference sheets she could need with her laptop and can view the materials in three dimensions to understand how pieces come together.
Medina, in her first job working with pipes, said her list of materials includes both names and images of materials, helping her find the right pieces and learn the materials faster.
And, she said, when she completes a job, she can use the laptop to call over her foreman, who uses his or her laptop to inspect the job and mark it complete.
Fields said “this is the first time our workforce has electronic access to email and to access information and references. It’s a generational change in the way that we build ships.”
In addition to leveraging the digital tools, the shipyard also has a new build strategy for Enterprise that pulls more work earlier in the process. Processes that may have taken place after the ship was launched from the dry dock can now happen in the dry dock; those that previously happened in the dry dock may now take place on the final assembly platform on land.
Fields said this is leading to the yard doing more work on land and then doing fewer — but much larger and more fully outfitted — lifts of assembled pieces from the ground into the dry dock. Enterprise will have 321 crane lifts into the dry dock, compared to about 370 for Kennedy.
Between the digital initiatives, the new build strategy and overall learning from ship to ship, Fields said the yard is seeing about a 10% decrease in man hours on Enterprise compared to JFK, after already seeing an equivalent step-down in man hours from Ford to JFK.
Fields added that, despite the challenges the program faces — supply chain issues, labor shortages, ongoing absenteeism due to the COVID pandemic and more — the actual keel laying (as opposed to the ceremonial keel laying on Aug. 27) took place in April, three weeks earlier than planned.
“Without that two-ship buy and without some of the digital initiatives, I think it’s hard to quantify a negative, but I think it would have been a lot more challenging.”
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.