Why Fred Harris Matters

by admin on September 24, 2013

Fred HarrisI am surprised to see Fred Harris’ ascent to the helm of both NASSCO and Bath Ironworks pass with so little comment beyond the specialist press.  For the Navy, Mr. Harris matters.  He matters a lot–so his promotion cannot pass without note.

Mr. Harris is a great shipbuilder, and he has done a wonderful job of making NASSCO a showpiece for the Navy–demonstrating the efficiencies of serial production, seamlessly pivoting between civilian and Navy projects, and keeping production going in a key state not normally known to be manufacturing-friendly.  He has a great connection with his customer, and extending this customer intimacy to Bath stands to keep the yard in good stead with the Navy as DDG-1000 starts working through it’s (inevitable) first-in-class issues.  It’s a great fit.

So…what are the implications of this leadership shuffle at General Dynamics?  I expect Mr. Harris to impose NASSCO’s successful template upon Bath.

First, he will work to extend the existing DDG-51 and DDG-1000 programs beyond the current programs of record.  With the T-AKE, Mr. Harris has been very adept at smoothing over first-in-class issues and then extending the margins of the existing program.  I expect him to continue on the same vein at Bath, and I expect we’ll see a push to grow both programs.

Second, Mr. Harris has been very successful at developing foreign partnerships–bringing in a basic foreign design and using that design (and foreign production expertise) as a basis for building a successful civil/military mix of business.  I expect that a similar effort will get underway at Bath for something like an icebreaker or for ice-hardened vessels.

Third, I expect Mr. Harris, with his two yards, to double-down on forcing the Navy to accept a conventional, frigate-sized (and ice-hardened?) combatant.  Bath is “in the hunt” for the Coast Guard OPC, and that project could certainly assume an LCS-like capability niche–and be produced at both yards.  After watching Mr. Harris work the Coast Guard into an anti-aluminum and anti-LCS frenzy, I see Mr. Harris working overtime to kill the LCS and having Bath build out the next tranche of LCS-like ships.  While I suspect he will go after the Freedom Class first, Mr. Harris also seems to make no bones about his distaste for aluminum–and with Bath being the Prime Contractor for LCS-2 and LCS-4, I can only assume Mr. Harris now has plenty of ammunition at his fingertips if he wishes to use it.  It will be interesting to see just how far Mr. Harris goes in having Bath cannibalize their own product…

Fourth, I expect the two yards to consolidate and share certain functions–or even projects (think OPC).  Tim Colton disagrees in a Sept 2013 post, and says that Harris’s promotion only adds a layer of management, and thus increases overhead.  Tim is shooting wide of the mark…I think, with Mr. Harris at the helm of both yards, there might be opportunities to trim overhead. I don’t know how far he might want to go in combining various yard functions, as having two totally separate yards has advantages if he wants to try to test different designs or bid strategies.  But the lure of trimming overhead might be hard to resist.

Fifth, I worry that Fred will not take the time to develop talent.  Mr. Harris obviously enjoys his job.  But he is not getting any younger.  For the good of the industry and the greater good of General Dynamics, he needs to start thinking about finding the guys who might be able to replace him, and start grooming those folks.  But that…for a leader as strong as Mr. Harris, can sometimes be hard to do.

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  • I also see the possibility of using the Offshore Patrol Cutter as the basis for an LCS 2.0, but I fear the drive to minimize cost may make it too limited to fill this role. Even so the Navy might consider a more powerful stretched version. There is apparently no requirement for the support of mission modules in the specifications, although some of the proposals might choose to include them.

    Both Bath and NASSCO have been secretive about their Offshore Patrol Cutter proposals.

    The Coast Guard could certainly use an influential ally in pushing for completion of this class. Both the Coast Guard and the nation would probably benefit from an acceleration of the program of record, and from a multi-year, block buy contract.

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