Navy Shifts Shipbuilding Dollars to Mid-Tier Yards
By Grace V. Jean and Sandra I. Erwin
Most of the Navy’s large warships are built at the nation’s “big four” yards in Avondale, La.; Pascagoula, Miss.; Bath Iron Works, Maine; and NASSCO, Calif.
But as the Navy seeks to build smaller vessels for coastal patrols and other nontraditional missions, it plans to shift some of its ship construction dollars to smaller yards, officials said.
“We are going to a broader range of ships so we are building more in mid-tier yards. That’s a particularly good thing,” said Rear Adm. William E. Landay III, the Navy’s program executive officer for ships.
Vessels that are being built at mid-tier yards include the littoral combat ship and the joint high speed vessel.
Building Navy ships at smaller yards has both pluses and minuses, said retired Rear Adm. Charles Hamilton, a former program executive officer for Navy ships.
Smaller yards work on fewer ships so the workforce is highly focused on making those products well, Hamilton said. But they may lack the technical knowledge to manage complex military ship programs, he added. Some yards may not have sufficient expertise in “earned value management,” for example, he said. EVM is a project management technique that is used to measure a program’s performance and cost execution.
For the Navy, a “universal declaration that ‘we’ll go to non-traditional yards’ would not solve the question” of how to build ships more efficiently, Hamilton said.
U.S. yards often are criticized for building ships at far higher costs than foreign yards do. That comparison may be unfair, he added.
Foreign yards in countries such as Norway, Denmark, South Korea and Japan are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and the latest computer-based design tools. But they don’t make the same types of ships that U.S. yards build for the Navy. “They do very well at hanging steel and building relatively non-complex ships,” Hamilton said. “It’s not clear how they would do with more complex designs.”
U.S. ship construction facilities in recent years have been modernizing and incorporating more automation and computer-based tools to design and build ships. Mid-tier yards, which employ 600 to 1,200 workers, in particular have been posturing themselves in the last eight years to accommodate what they see as a growing market for them in government work on Navy and Coast Guard contracts. These yards say that they have a price advantage over their larger counterparts and can build ships more efficiently.
“I don’t know that we can say that there’s more efficiency in smaller yards,” said Landay at a Surface Navy Association conference in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know who’s more efficient. I wish someone could tell me that.”