With all the fun and excitement of Washington’s Sea/Air/Space exposition, it was easy to overlook one of the more interesting and consequential displays of the show. Most observers missed it–because this Huntington Ingalls offering was stuck off on a tractor-trailer, off the display floor. It was parked way out back, beyond the reach of the hardcore convention smokers. Most probably experienced it as an out-of-the-mainstream reception venue, and probably had a chilly beer by it before rushing back inside to warm up. But inside of that trailer was something incredible–Huntington Ingalls Industries has managed to pack high-tech shipbuilding into a trailer, and they’re taking the shipbuilding profession on tour–showcasing a cleaner, more clinical and data-driven vision of America’s shipbuilding future. It was as an impressive piece of outreach I have ever seen.

You can dismiss the display as some useless convention bauble, but Huntington Ingalls’ new toy is significant for a lot of reasons. First, the labor-replacement tidal wave–as older Cold-War era workers retire–is breaking upon the carrier and submarine labor force. Just as the Nation wants to build the Columbia Class SSBNs, additional Virginia Class SSNs, AND add in a block buy of the Ford Class CVNs to the Huntington Ingalls backlog, most of their trained workforce will retire. And, making matters worse, in a booming economy, existing shipbuilding recruiting tools/recruiting locations aren’t as effective as they once were.

Second, shipbuilding labors under something of a stigma–who wants their kids to work in a hot, dirty and dangerous shipyard these days?  Fewer and fewer shipbuilding parents are urging their children to become shipbuilders; multi-generational shipbuilding families that were proudly showcased in The Yard are scarce. Who wants to put up with the job uncertainty of working overtime one day and possibly fired the next? And shipbuilding can be rough–there’s a perception out there that only reform-school kids and ex-cons do shipbuilding, right? I mean, it’s seen as one of the last analogue industries left in a digital world–and one only needs to spend some time on the Gulf Coast to see how new entrants to the labor force are being captured by the aerospace corridor–even though some of the manufacturing tasks are the same, shipbuilding just cannot compete.

And finally–and this one is on the shipbuilders–the constant moaning and groaning about how China/Korea/Japan/Europe does shipbuilding better, faster and for lower cost–has cut into the national enthusiasm for shipbuilding. Who wants to work for a loser of an industry, right?

Innovations like Huntington Ingalls’ new trailer can help change the game and get people excited about shipbuilding again.

Help Wanted:

For naval shipbuilding, labor is a huge deal. If a shipbuilder can’t recruit and train tens of thousands of workers and then entice them to show up every day, the yard will fail. And with everything else in the labor-development infrastructure pretty much in place at HII and the larger naval shipyards–the shine and excitement of on-site apprentice academies, community-college welding training programs and tight integration with local labor assistance boards has kinda faded.  Without some sort of recruiting innovation, the industry “bigs” will be left scraping from a dwindling pool of local labor.

The Huntington Ingalls road-show changes that game–bringing the promise of a digital shipyard and high-tech work to new audiences in a new, hand-on and non-powerpointy kinda way. It’s a hands-on demonstration of shipbuilding’s future (Look! We scan in the work! Everything is digital! Data-driven! Integrated! It’s clean! Almost clinical!). Quite frankly, the trailer is one of the better blending of STEM-based “buzz” with an old-fashioned labor-recruitment drive that I have seen. And the trailer reinforces the idea that Huntington Ingalls is the first-mover with high-tech digital shipbuilding (even though a lot of smaller/newer yards are ahead of ’em). But it works. The trailer de-stigmatizes shipbuilding and it focuses on some less-highlighted design/back-end aspects of shipbuilding beyond, oh, welding.

But this trailer is not just a tool for recruiting. It’s a fantastic political tool. I mean, everybody knows labor is ultimately the engine that builds and holds fierce Congressional support for shipbuilding. Efforts to support and build the workforce capture Congressional interest like nothing else does–but, as I mentioned before, the training academies and local efforts are sorta stale. But packaging this sort of high-tech shipbuilding fun into a mobile tractor-trailer/reception venue makes it a wonderful lobbying tool. Rock into somebody’s district and invite the local staff, or roll up to one of the Congressional office-buildings, hold a reception and send staffers through whose land-locked districts are far away from any waterfront yard.

Anyway, the trailer is impressive. I’m glad to see a shipbuilding “big” finally leverage it’s disproportionate indirect cost and fee to do a few pro-shipbuilding things that can, ultimately, support shipbuilding as a whole. This sort of recruiting and “imagineering” tool is certainly an investment above and beyond what the little yards can muster–at the end of the day, only the shipbuilding “bigs” can really change the negative perception–or stigma–of shipbuilding and shipbuilders.

Conclusion:

And finally, kudos to Jennifer Boykin–the long-time shipbuilder who is at the helm of HII Newport News–for correctly diagnosing and acting to help resolve a worrying long-term shipbuilding challenge. Yeah, a fancy recruiting and reception trailer won’t solve everything, but HII is putting their trailer to good, creative use, and, well, it’s innovative sector-building outreach that, as a whole, the low-margin shipbuilding industry has a tough time justifying and finding the funds to do. It is exactly what the industry needs right now.

The next step is to extend this work to support the idea that America actually has great shipbuilders. But how?  Maybe by funding some high-profile and innovative/unclassified design and conceptual work–like throwing some designers at the America’s Cup race, or by funding some series of audacious and well-publicized shipbuilding design challenge/contests, or by ripping a page from the “Elon Musk school of marketing” and publicly leap far beyond where the naval customer is right now to leverage wider public enthusiasm/capture wider public imagination.

HII has the money to show us all that they–American Shipbuilders–can get the hard stuff done right. Do it.

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The Tug and Salvage Fleet T-ATS(X) has a Builder!

by Craig Hooper on March 26, 2018

As a staunch advocate for the Navy’s tug and salvage fleet, I am thrilled to see the drama-filled T-ATS(X) program head towards production (some history here). It has been a long road for this important but low-profile and oft-ignored vessel–the T-ATS(X) wallowed under multiple RFIs for years. It nearly foundered after several efforts to privatize and contract out the tug/salvage mission and barely survived misguided MSC efforts to do away with the tug-and-salvage fleet entirely.

And yet here we are–a competent “Vigor Industrial-like” diversified small-business shipyard, ‘Gulf Island Shipyards LLC”, announced on March 19 that it had been awarded a contract to build one T-ATS(X) with options for up to seven more, at $63.6 million dollars apiece. Sure, the price is a tad high in comparison to the average anchor-handler OSV, but I couldn’t be happier.

That said, I am a little worried that we observers know next-to-nothing about the design–when the RFP came out as a small business set aside, news coverage of T-ATS(X) evaporated. We don’t know if the Navy has used the information derived from  prior “Phase I” design efforts (awarded to  Bollinger Shipyards Lockport, Eastern Shipbuilding Group, Fincantieri Marine Group, and VT Halter Marine) to inform a new design or if Gulf Island has a design of it’s own. And, finally, we know very little about the small business that won this valuable contract.

Gulf Island Shipyard?

So what is Gulf Island Shipyard?  Well, Gulf Island Shipyard is actually “Gulf Island Fabrication”, a diversified “oil patch” manufacturing conglomerate, with facilities in Texas and Louisiana. Unlike Gulf Island’s  west coast analogue, Vigor Industrial, Gulf Island Shipyards became a publicly-traded enterprise in the ’90’s and has continued aggressive growth into the current downturn, taking over the LEEVAC Shipyards in 2016.

Gulf Island is hungry, and it moved fast to get some interesting projects “in-hand in a hurry”. They bid for and won the Regional Class Research vessel contract, a $120 million dollar National Science Foundation-funded project for Oregon State University (picture up top) that may grow into a multi-hull buy. (For those who don’t know, the Regional Class Research vessel is an ultra-quiet, stable vessel with capability to support unmanned craft–and I certainly could see a rejiggered version these growing into a really, really  interesting template for the T-ATS(X).)

And finally, Gulf Island must be able to offer pretty darn good value as they beat out low-bidders Bollinger and VT Halter in this effort. They also beat out the well-respected Dakota Creek Industries, a niche builder of fishing boats, ferries, AGORs and certain test vehicles.

The bid must have been pretty darn low, informed a bit by some in-yard desperation. I mean, it’s had to have been an awfully close-run thing for the yard–on the day the T-ATS(X) “win” was announced, the yard quietly announced in an SEC note a customer (likely bankrupt OSV operator Tidewater) had pulled out of a two-ship contract. As contract cancellations go, it’s pretty ugly–in a previous December ’17 SEC filing, the shipyard noted that, aside from a backlog of 8 harbor tugs and the research vessel, they had “two large multi-purpose service vessels for one customer, which commenced in the first quarter of 2014 and will be completed during 2019.”  So, essentially, Gulf Island has a couple of abandoned ships sitting in the yard, months from completion (frankly, the Navy should grab-em, add an alongside refueling rig, convert the drill mud holding tanks to fuel and put these suckers to good use someplace). So Gulf Island had to have been really sweating things since about May of ’17.

Meanwhile, over at the Regional Class Research Vessel, a very interesting (and long silent) blog by the project manager for the vessel suggests that, well, the honeymoon between builder and buyer was, by the first “Quarterly Management Review” back in October ’17, probably ending. The project manager ended his final(?) informative blog like this:

“After all this, you might think that our first QMR was nothing but slides, furtive glances, and people avoiding hard truths.  It really wasn’t.  But we can do better. Honestly.”

So it seems mid-level builder’s reps were feeling like things were not getting off to an ideal start. And it has probably gotten worse; no shipyard weathers big labor perturbations like a “stop-work” on two big projects without impacting other projects in the yard. It’s not all fun and games over at Gulf Island.

But then again, nobody entered shipbuilding for the fun. It’s a serious–and often fractious–business. And government contracts are really, really hard for small “low margin” yards to absorb. Ultimately, Gulf Island Shipyard has some interesting projects in hand, and I always have a soft spot for the hungry, diversified yards that take on the challenge of assembling limited run, high-tolerance scientific craft.

So we’ll see how this goes.

Conclusion:

The T-ATS(X) is probably one of the bigger “small business” set-aside contracts out there, and it’ll be interesting to see how “going small” plays out.

As a long-time advocate for the T-ATS(X) platform (here and here)  I’d be upset if these useful platforms become a behind-schedule and over-budget circus. But for over $60 million dollars apiece, these utilitarian “tug and salvage” vessels had better be ready for “hard use far forward” from day one. And if they are, Gulf Island Shipyard should be permitted to build more than just eight.

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Shockingly, USS Ford to be Shocked

March 24, 2018

I know I should be talking about big bolus of shipbuilding cash that is headed the Navy’s way, but…I’d be remiss if I failed to note some Ford Class news. Inside Defense reports: The Navy is reverting to an earlier plan and will shock test the lead ship of its new aircraft carrier class, the Gerald R. […]

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Frank FFG(X) Feelings From the Fincantieri CEO

March 15, 2018

Giuseppe Bono is one of those crafty elders of the shipbuilding community, so his recent interview in Defensenews.com, conducted by Tom Kington, is worth a closer examination. It is one of the more interesting salvoes in a brutal FFG(X) marketing frenzy. Now, Fincantieri is in something of a complicated spot regarding the future frigate bid. […]

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Shut Up and Shock the USS Ford (CVN 78)

March 8, 2018

America has a very small window of time to shock test a Ford Class aircraft carrier. If missed, the Ford Class will likely not be shocked at all–a perplexing oversight as America “girds” anew for conventional state-state conflict. I am worried. Recent Ford shock trial coverage suggests American maritime commentators forget that the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) […]

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The Army’s Navy Re-Awakens: Don’t Overlook MSV(L)

December 16, 2017

With 2017 drawing to a close, it occurred to me that I have been remiss on discussing the reinvigoration of the “Army’s Navy” with the award of the Light Maneuver Support Vessel (MSV(L)) building contract. I have also been remiss in highlighting the winning prime contractor, an “on-the-move” multi-state industrial conglomerate called Vigor Industrial. Under […]

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In Press: Talking Biomedical Strategy at DefenseOne.com

November 6, 2017

I have a piece up at DefenseOne.com today dissecting the USNS Comfort saga off Puerto Rico. Go read it, here. (And then maybe take a look at my submarine piece, too) Anyway, my message at DefenseOne should be a familiar refrain to long-time readers here–America must pay a bit more attention to military medicine and […]

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Prepare To Welcome the F-18 Stingray

November 5, 2017

There should be little mystery behind Northrop Grumman’s recent decision to withdraw from the MQ-25 Stingray Program. As the requirements have trickled out, the Stingray has started to look very much like an unmanned F-18 variant. And that’s great, because an F-18 variant would help the Navy focus on integrating a pedestrian unmanned platform into […]

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In Press: Some Thoughts On USS Ford (CVN 78)

August 2, 2017

The newly-commissioned USS Ford (CVN 78) recovered and launched its first aircraft less than a week after commissioning. And while that achievement is all well and good, don’t get too carried away by the hype. Wait for the Ford’s first deployment before really cheering this new carrier and all its new tech. As I told Project […]

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State Brings Back the Patrol Yacht!

July 25, 2017

The State Department is getting a boat! A BOAT. It’s about bloody time. Every embassy in Oceania (at least!) should have a boat, and, frankly, America would be more secure if there were some floating consulates wandering about the Pacific, facilitating better engagement and collecting intel first-hand (I’ve kvetched about the lack of State Department […]

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