Newport News Shipbuilding is on track toward building the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy with 18-20 percent fewer working hours than its predecessor, the shipyard's president said Tuesday — a savings that would be unprecedented in carrier construction.
Jennifer Boykin, attending her first Sea-Air-Space Exposition as shipyard president, said the Kennedy is 75 percent structurally complete and should get its first section of flight deck later this month. Shipbuilders plan to move the Kennedy out of dry dock in late 2019, three months ahead of schedule. The shipyard expects to deliver the ship to the Navy in 2022.
Congress and the Navy are keeping a close eye on the budget for the Kennedy, the second aircraft carrier in the Gerald R. Ford class. After the first-in-class Ford came in over budget and behind schedule, costs on Kennedy are expected to toe the line on a fixed-priced contract of $11.4 billion.
A good deal of the savings on Kennedy is driven from lessons learned from the struggles in building the Ford, which was a new design packed with untested technology. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has questioned how much could be saved from Ford to Kennedy, even in the best scenarios.
In a report last year, GAO said an 18 percent reduction in labor hours — stipulated in the Kennedy contract — would be unprecedented in U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier construction. At most, labor hours dropped by 9.3 percent between the first-in-class USS Nimitz, commissioned in 1975, and the follow-on ship, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Being "'on track" for an 18-20 percent savings, as Boykin said Tuesday, would meet that contractual goal.
Two carrier purchase
After Kennedy, the Navy is seriously considering buying the next two aircraft carriers at once. That would involve the future USS Enterprise, now undergoing advance work at Newport News, plus an as-yet-unamed ship. Boykin said her team is currently working on a response to the Navy's request for a proposal on a two-carrier buy. The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the only designer and builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy.
The shipyard expects to save around $1.6 billion if the Navy executes a two-carrier purchase, Boykin said.It would allow the yard to save money in several areas.
"This is a big deal for us," she said. "And it's a great value for the American taxpayer."
The first area of savings is labor. There would be no drop-off in workload between carriers. The yard has blamed past layoffs on workload "valleys" due to gaps between major projects. A two-carrier buy would allow the yard to shorten that gap. The ships would be built less than four years apart. Carriers have typically been built on five-year intervals.
Engineering and planning would take place on two ships at once, saving further costs.
Another area of savings is the purchase of supplies. The yard can go to vendors and order items in bulk, getting a better price. That provides stability for the medium and small businesses that supply everything from valves to pipes to furniture.
"The suppliers have all been paying attention to what their opportunity is," Boykin said. "They read the news. They understand where we are going. They still need the signal, they still need to know that there is going to be two-ship contract."
Shipyard executives plan to respond to the Navy's request later in the spring.
On the workforce front, the yard is hiring more than 400 people each month, a pace that will continue until August, when it is expected to taper off, Boykin said. The shipyard is the largest industrial employer in Virginia, and the workforce currently stands at around 22,000. It expects to top off around 23,000 and hold steady thereafter, as new hires will balance out workers lost to attrition.
A two-carrier purchase would not spur hiring beyond the ramp-up that is already occurring.
The young workers pouring into the shipyard are from a technologically-savvy generation that easily take to computer tablets and other tools of digital shipbuilding, which the company is banking on to increase efficiency.
"The pace of innovation is faster than we would have imagined," she said.
While new workers lack the practical experience of older shipbuilders, Boykin said that was not a concern. The shipyard has training programs in place to smooth the transition during ramp-ups in hiring, she said.
The Newport News yard handles midlife overhauls for all nuclear-powered aircraft carries. Designed to last 50 years, the ships return to Newport News after 25 years to receive new nuclear fuel and undergo extensive repairs and upgrades. The process is called a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH).
Currently, the USS George Washington is undergoing a RCOH, and shipbuilders have completed seven months of a 47-month contract. It is currently in dry dock for repairs to propellers, shafts and other equipment, plus defueling and refueling its reactors. The next ship due in for a RCOH is the USS John C. Stennis.
Shipbuilders are either planning or executing maintenance on seven of the 10 Nimitz-class carriers that make up the bulk of the fleet. Work is ongoing in Norfolk, Japan and Puget Sound, Wash.
Newport News builds nuclear-powered attack submarines in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. Currently, Newport News has 10 submarines in various stages of completion, from less than 10 percent to 97 percent.
It is also gearing up to build a fleet of new submarines, the Columbia-class boats that will carry nuclear missiles and make up the undersea leg of America's nuclear deterrent. Boykin said the first cut of steel on Columbia class took place a few weeks ago.
Sea-Air-Space 2018, the largest maritime exposition in the U.S. concludes Wednesday at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.