NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Ingalls Shipbuilding, the sole builder of amphibious ships for the U.S. Navy, is considering potential alterations to the San Antonio-class amphib design, amid a Pentagon-led pause of the production line.
The Navy announced last year it would buy one last San Antonio LPD in fiscal 2023 and then take a “strategic pause” to relook at the cost and capability of the ships. LPDs cost about $1.9 billion each and, in the future, are expected to make up about two-thirds of the amphibious fleet inventory. The Navy, after awarding a contract for LPD-32 on March 31, has now bought 16 of a planned inventory of 26 Flight I and Flight II LPDs.
During Ingalls’ transition from the Flight I to the less expensive Flight II design, it has done so across several ships, incrementally cutting in changes to the last few Flight I ships, which are still under construction, so as not to disrupt the production line.
Asked whether Ingalls is taking steps now to prepare for a different design that could be more abruptly introduced to the production line, Ingalls Shipbuilding President Kari Wilkinson told Defense News “we absolutely are doing some things now.”
“We’re doing some self-investment as well as working with the Navy on what a potential next LPD, whatever that becomes, would look like. We advocate, obviously, to transition that over several ships, as we’ve done with LPD Flight I to Flight II, DDGs Flight I to II to IIA to III,” she said during a media roundtable at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference here. “We’ve done some trade studies, we’re trying to understand requirements to the best we can right now, knowing those could change because the Navy and Marine Corps are responding to evolving threats at all times.”
She said that, while the Navy and Pentagon have been discussing way to alter the ship design to lower cost, the Marine Corps has been focused on “preserving the capabilities of the platform” and have remained “steadfast” in not wanting to change the current design.
Defense News reported last week recent Defense Department discussions have included rough drawings of pared-down ship designs. Wilkinson said the shipyard has not been part of those conversations, but executives have “brought some ideas forward and have had some good conversations with both the Navy program office and [the Marines] over at Quantico.”
“If we understand a little bit better about how we want to evolve the capability, what we’re looking to retain and what’s maybe on the table for discussion … then we can start looking at our design and tailoring based on those expectations or potential requirements that pop out the other side of a study,” she added.
Among her top concerns, Wilkinson said, is preserving the skilled workforce at the Mississippi yard today.
“If we don’t have amphibs … we want to make sure we don’t lose any shipbuilders,” she said.
To that end, the yard is working under a study contract on the submarine tender replacement program, dubbed AS(X). Navy budget documents indicate the service plans to buy two ships in the class, one in FY24 and the other in FY26.
“Our offering might look like something else we build today,” she said, acknowledging it could be an LPD derivative before saying she couldn’t comment on the design while the study is ongoing. “In the absence of a solid amphib demand signal, we’re always going to be interested in what we can do to preserve our shipbuilders.”
The yard is also eyeing refitting sealift ships as part of the Navy’s sealift recapitalization effort as well as the Constellation-class frigate program. Fincantieri is the prime contractor on the Constellation, but the Navy may at some point add a second production yard.
Ingalls is “blessed with a backlog, but there is a point we will stop hiring, but that’s not any time really soon,” she said.
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.