Jun 28, 2011 By Michael Fabey aviation week and space technology
Newport News, Va. - As Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) moves into the assembly phase for the next-generation CVN-78 Ford-class aircraft carrier, CEO Michael Petters stays awake at night focused on CVN-79 and beyond.
“The thing I’m a little concerned about with carriers is: What’s going to happen to the follow-ons?” Petters tells Aviation Week.
CVN-78 still keeps him busy. HII’s shipbuilding unit here is making sure the Ford remains on cost and schedule. “We are proving out the design,” Petters says. “More importantly, we are proving out the vendor base.”
High-ranking Navy officials are impressed with the CVN-78 work thus far, which executives here expected.
“We designed in—and spent a lot more time thinking about—the produce-ability of the design,” Petters says. Now it is time for the Navy to leverage that up-front design and engineering work, he says, by committing more fully to the CVN-79—recently named the John F. Kennedy—and to other future Ford-class carriers.
“We have 78 going here and we’ve begun cutting steel on 79,” he says. “I think it’s going to be very important to continue ahead with 79, [and] get it into detailed design and construction. I‘d be interested in a discussion about a two-ship buy. We know we’re going to build these ships.”
He points out that the Navy contracted for two sets of carriers together—CVN-72 and CVN-73, and then CVN- 74 and CVN-75.
“You know how we say you don’t really have serial production of aircraft carriers? Well, then we kind of did. Between 74 and 75, it was about a month between carriers,” Petters says.
For a carrier construction period, which is often better measured by presidential administration years than months, that is incredibly fast. And, Petters argues, it is more productive for the shipyard and cost-effective for the Navy. The facility here can retain its trained waterfront workforce and equipment for consecutive carriers, which can yield cost savings.
One reason carrier acquisition costs have more than doubled in recent years, analysts say, is that the production cycle for them has increased to seven years from four. But Petters points out that the Defense Department quickly pushed the preferred time frame from four years up to five, which the U.S. Government Accountability Office says could increase costs again.
“I’m happy with five [years],” Petters said. “We haven’t been on five for so long.”
Carrier budget and acquisition issues, he notes, affect many other Navy shipbuilding programs. “The carrier sits in the background of every other program that is out there, he says. “If you start to move a carrier around to deal with budget issues, you are going to have a ripple effect across all other programs.”
Such importance raises the level of debate.
“The carrier is a statement of national purpose,” Petters notes. “It’s a national asset. It is a discussion to be had on a national level. Whenever the discussion goes on [about the defense budget] the carrier gets discussed. It always becomes an issue. We want to be part of that discussion because we want to make sure the ramifications are understood.”
Operationally, the carrier discussion has turned to what other Navy vessels—notably, the amphibious assault ships—can accomplish, including types of missions that historically carriers have done.
For example, amphibs played a major role in disaster relief following the tsunami and nuclear plant crisis in Japan.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says he no longer counts 11 carriers in the U.S. fleet—he now tallies 22, including the amphibs, in that total.
“When it comes to amphibs,” says Petters, whose Ingalls unit in Pascagoula, Miss., builds the vessels, “I don’t think people fully appreciate what those ships can do. They’re turning out to be as flexible a platform for irregular missions as the Navy has. That says a lot for the way they were designed, built and operated.”
But some critics say the Navy could reduce the number of carriers and rely on amphibs to carry out more missions.
Petters says a full complement of both is required to reach the fleet of more than 300 ships the service says it needs.
“As long as we are in a discussion about one Navy program against another Navy program, the Navy will not get to 300 ships,” Petters says. “If you start having a debate about whether we need amphibs or aircraft carriers—the Navy just lost.”