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Continuous shipbuilding: Uncle Sam offers a helping hand

Posted By on November 23, 2016 @ 06:00

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jacob Z.

The US government’s largest contracted military shipbuilder, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), recently opened an office in Canberra. It seems unlikely that HII would’ve done that without encouragement from the US government, via the US Navy.

At Newport News in Virginia, HII design, build and refuel all USN nuclear aircraft carriers, as well as building Virginia-class nuclear submarines (along with another US shipyard). At Pascagoula, Mississippi, they are building 35 DDG51 Aegis destroyers, as well as most LPD and LPA amphibious ships for the USN. Not only do they build USN ships but they also sustain them globally.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne issued a typically enthusiastic media release [1]:

‘The fact that Huntington Ingalls Industries, one of the world’s leading shipbuilders, is setting up shop in Australia is great news… HII is a world leader in defence industry, whether that be workforce development, fleet sustainment or naval vessel design and construction.’

During an interview [2], Jeff McCray, vice-president business development at HII Australia was asked whether HII wanted to buy a local shipyard. He responded:

‘Not at this stage. We have two major shipyards that build the vast majority of the US Navy’s ships, both are in the continental US. The role we see ourselves playing is as an advisor on shipyard design and work flow management in addition to workforce development’.

With ASC being divided into three parts [3]—naval shipbuilding, Collins-class submarine sustainment, and shipbuilding infrastructure (read ‘construction site for Australia’s Future Submarines’)—has a firm like HII got a lot to offer Australia’s continuous shipbuilding program?

For a start, Defence’s $50 billion Future Submarine program is building conventional diesel-electric submarines, the Shortfin Barracuda, based on DCNS’s experience and capabilities in building nuclear Barracuda subs. These are smaller than the latest US subs, but Defence might have HII consulting on shipyard layout (which the Government might opt to retain ownership of) and workflow, together with recruitment and training of suitable staff to work on this project.

On the shipbuilding side, the $35 billion Future Frigate design and construction occurring at Techport’s site in Adelaide offers the possibility of having HII as overall project manager, supervising the shipyard and directing the activities of the chosen shipbuilder on behalf of Defence. That could also include workforce development.

The West Australian component of the shipbuilding program is likely to be of less interest to HII because there are already two extremely competent shipbuilders in WA—BAE Systems and Austal—and the design work for the offshore patrol vessels to be built there will have been completed.

We already have examples of experts helping us resolve Australian naval shipbuilding challenges.

The Winter–White report [4] by ex-US Navy Secretary Prof Don Winter and Australian shipbuilding luminary Dr John White, though still unreleased, helped re-baseline the Air Warfare Destroyer construction project to the point where it is now meeting revised schedule and cost targets, as well as improving productivity on the second and third ships by incorporating lessons learned from the first.

John Coles was commissioned in 2011 by the Government to develop a plan [5] to improve the repair and management of Australia’s submarine fleet. Defence Minister Marise Payne announced in October 2016 that his follow-up review, Beyond Benchmark [6] (PDF), ‘found a remarkable improvement in the capability to successfully manage the sustainment of the Collins Class submarines’.

After being engaged by the Australian government in September 2014 to work on an enterprise-level plan for naval shipbuilding, RAND produced a wide-ranging 294-page report [7] five months later. It proffered a strategy for continuous shipbuilding, while controlling costs, especially for the Future Frigate program. Intriguingly, on page 134 they gave a brief case study of HII’s shipbuilding operation at Newport News. They concluded that although the workforce there was well-paid, with little employment attrition, there’s little economic spinoff to the area apart from workforce wages. They opined that this may be because ‘the area has no heritage of entrepreneurial behaviour’, certainly not a statement which could be made about Osborne, SA or Henderson, WA.

While HII has much to offer Australia’s continuous shipbuilding program, there’s also a strategic reason for their presence. HII’s sustainment operations in Japan and Taiwan are very close to China. As Mike Smith, HII’s VP for strategy and development, told me: ‘In terms of overseas fleet sustainment of US Navy vessels, we have adopted an “asset light” model where we assemble bespoke flyaway teams with the requisite skills and gear to perform specific maintenance and repair activities on any platform anywhere in the region. However, regionally based solutions need to be explored when those repairs are more extensive. Australia could potentially play a key role in that.’

The government’s welcome to HII shows that they’re seeking expert help to ensure the continuous shipbuilding program performs to quality, schedule and cost in producing the new capabilities required by the RAN.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/continuous-shipbuilding-uncle-sam-offers-helping-hand/

URLs in this post:

[1] media release: https://www.pyneonline.com.au/media-centre/media-releases/huntington-ingalls-industries-to-open-in-australia

[2] an interview: http://www.asiapacificdefencereporter.com/articles/899/Large-US-military-shipbuilder-establishes-a-Canberra-office

[3] divided into three parts: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/interpreting-asc-split/

[4] Winter–White report: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/saving-the-awd-project-too-little-too-late/

[5] develop a plan: http://www.minister.defence.gov.au/2012/12/12/minister-for-defence-minister-for-defence-materiel-and-minister-for-finance-and-deregulation-joint-media-release-release-of-final-report-of-coles-review-into-submarine-sustainment/

[6] Beyond Benchmark: http://www.defence.gov.au/casg/Multimedia/Coles%20Beyond%20Benchmark%20Report.pdf

[7] a wide-ranging 294-page report: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1000/RR1093/RAND_RR1093.pdf

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