Log In


Reset Password
  • MENU
    Nation
    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Navy review highlights challenges behind shipbuilding delays in Virginia, nationwide

    The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford refuels from the underway replenishment oiler USNS Laramie in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Oct. 11, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo via AP)

    A Navy review is shining a light on major shipbuilding delays, including at the Newport News shipyard, but defense experts point to larger systemic issues constraining the industrial base’s production capacity.

    Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro ordered a 45-day shipbuilding review this year with the goal of identifying causes of shipbuilding challenges and recommending actions to keep new builds on schedule. A one-page fact sheet released in April showed several of the Navy’s top shipbuilding programs are one to three years behind schedule.

    A second investigation will explore how to fix the delays, Del Toro said. The secretary referenced needing a “whole-of-government effort” when ordering the study in January.

    The review found that the lead ship of the Columbia-class submarines is delayed 12-16 months, blocks four and five of Virginia-class submarines are delayed 24-36 months and the third Ford-class aircraft carrier is delayed 18-26 months — all of which Newport News Shipbuilding plays a role in constructing. Additionally, the lead ship of the Constellation-class frigates, which are being built at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, is delayed 36 months.

    The fact sheet offered little insight into the cause of the delays, only summarizing bullet points of challenges. Lead ship issues included design maturity, first-of-class challenges, transition to production and design workforce. Class issues included acquisition and contract strategy, supply chain, skilled workforce and government workforce. The full report is not available for public release due to sensitive information, said Lt. Cmdr. Javan Rasnake, spokesperson for the Navy’s research, development and acquisition division.

    Del Toro’s January order placed blame on the “lingering effects of post-pandemic conditions” on shipbuilders and suppliers, specifically with the Columbia-class submarine and Constellation-class frigate programs.

    “It is a partial explanation. It’s not a sufficient one. And it doesn’t address the situation in the year 2024,” said Aaron Karp, an Old Dominion University lecturer specializing in international security, armed conflict and weapons proliferation.

    ‘Frailty of the supply chain’

    Shipbuilding delays are caused by funding tensions among lawmakers or the inability or unwillingness of manufacturers to make the long-term investments that higher production rates require, Karp said.

    “There is some long-term investment that needs to be done for this kind of work — big capital stuff,” Karp said. “If you want to sustain higher rate production, it just has to be done.”

    This year, it took lawmakers multiple continuing resolutions spanning nearly six months to pass $1.2 trillion in spending in a package of bills, including defense spending. The delay meant defense dollars were frozen at the prior year’s levels.

    Historically, Karp said, military procurement woes are nothing new.

    “They get into a tiff, basically, and when one half of the tiff is controlled by the U.S. Congress, it’s unpredictable,” Karp said.

    President and CEO Chris Kastner of HII, the parent company of Newport News Shipbuilding, did not say if funding tensions contributed to delays, but said advance procurement is critical to keeping shipbuilding on track. Advance procurement, he told reporters on April 4 at the company’s Arlington office, allows suppliers to plan for future orders and be on schedule with delivering products. Kastner declined an interview this past week.

    “Part of the reason we are in the fix that we are in is that the supply chain got unhealthy coming through the years when they were ordering less ships,” Kastner said during the media event. “You go down to single-source, sole-source suppliers and demand signals that weren’t consistent, and it created a frailty of the supply chain.”

    The Navy’s 2025 budget request is looking to trim procurement of Virginia-class submarines and future Ford-class carriers in an effort to ease the workload on shipyards. But such changes disrupt the industrial supply chain by lowering demand, ultimately making the Navy “not a very good customer,” said Bryan Clark, defense analyst with Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute.

    “From the industry perspective, you can’t really prepare. You can’t buy. You can’t hire workers. You can’t build infrastructure,” Clark said. “You can’t establish your production lines in advance because you can’t depend on the schedule over which the government’s going to buy your products.”

    The Navy’s budget plans to purchase one Virginia-class submarine, a break from a steady two-per-year demand signal from the service. Navy officials maintain that the industrial base must build 2.33 attack boats per year in order for the U.S. to sell Virginia-class submarines to Australia as part of a trilateral agreement. The submarine industrial base is currently building 1.3 attack boats per year, despite the Navy buying two Virginia-class submarines per year since fiscal year 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service.

    Workforce and technology challenges

    The inability to plan exacerbates workforce challenges, Clark said.

    “We are in a pretty tight labor environment. Working in a lot of these industries is not as easy as an office job or retail job, and in a lot of cases, the industry jobs don’t pay that much more than the retail or the office job,” Clark said.

    HII has invested $450 million since 2020 in training its workforce, Kastner said. The Newport News division began hosting weekly walk-in hiring events on the Peninsula and monthly hiring events at locations across South Hampton Roads. The shipyard is working to hire 3,000 skilled trades workers this year and a total of 19,000 within the decade, a spokesperson told The Virginian-Pilot.

    Defense experts Clark and Karp both said the workforce woes experienced by the shipyard are no different than that of other industries across the country.

    “It is a measure of the extent of their problem,” Karp said.

    The review found that first-in-class challenges and design maturity has contributed to delayed production. That shows, Clark said, the Navy has aimed too high by making generational leaps with cutting-edge technology.

    China has made headlines in recent months for outpacing U.S. military shipbuilding. The U.S. Navy is projected to have 293 battle force ships by the end of the fiscal year, according to congressional research. The Wall Street Journal reported China’s navy fields 370 battle force ships and that number is expected to grow to 435 by 2030.

    “This is because they have probably chosen to go with more proven technologies,” Clark said.

    The same issue plagued the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest and most technologically advanced aircraft carrier. The Ford was delivered to the Navy in 2017 after years of costly delays associated with the never-before-seen technology. The delays pushed the Ford’s price tag up to $13 billion — $4 billion over budget. The second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in summer 2025, a spokesperson for Newport News Shipbuilding said in February.

    The Navy’s 2025 budget shows the Enterprise will be delivered in September 2029, a change from the previous scheduled delivery date of March 2028. The Navy has also pushed back the advance procurement funding for the fifth and sixth Ford-class carriers to 2030.

    While U.S. Navy ships are dramatically more sophisticated than Chinese ships, Clark said, the U.S. is paying the price — that price being shipbuilding delays.

    “I think the lesson here is maybe make these improvements more incrementally and accept the fact that you may have to make other arrangements to mitigate the shortfalls that come from building a less sophisticated warship,” Clark said.

    ‘Actions speak louder than words’

    The review is “a deafening wake-up call” for Navy shipbuilding officials, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told The Virginian-Pilot in an email on Friday. Both Wittman and Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., said they disagree with the Navy’s budget for 2025.

    Kiggans said the Navy’s justification of easing the workload was “an absurd excuse” for diverting funds from shipbuilding programs at a time when defense industrial base partners are working to return to a full schedule after struggling in the wake of supply chain challenges and workforce issues.

    Wittman and Kiggans called on Congress to rectify the Navy budget, which they said will undermine the service’s ability to project power across the globe and harm Virginia’s shipbuilding ecosystem.

    “Actions speak louder than words,” Wittman said. “Reviews are pointless if they do not result in progress.”

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.