2012-11-05 by Robbin Laird
During a visit to the Gulf Coast, I spent two days at the Austal yard visiting the facility to tour the Littoral Combat Ship as well as the Joint High Speed Vessel.
I also attended the keel laying for the sixth LCS and talked with some of the crew.
The first 8 photos are credited to Second Line of Defense and the remaining to the Mobile Press Register.
- In the first photo, the rear doors of LCS 4, the USS Coronado, is seen dockside.
- In the second photo, JHSV 2 is seen dockside.
- In the third photo, a new JHSV is seen as shot from JHSV 2.
- In the fourth photo, the rear of the USS Coronado is seen as shot from the wheelhouse of JHSV 2.
- In the fifth photo, the wheelhouse of JHSV 2 is seen.
- In the sixth photo, the USS Coronado is seen dockside.
- In the seventh photo, the front side and the gun are seen aboard USS Coronado.
- In the eighth photo, the command post for LCS-4 is pictured.
- In the ninth photo, an aerial view of the Austal yard is provided.
- In the tenth photo, the LCS and JHSV are seen sea side.
- In the 11th through 13th photos are various views of JHSV.
- In the 14th photo is the USS Coronado coming out of its bay.
- In the final photo, the Spearhead JHSV is seen as seen during sea trials.
I had a chance to talk with Dr. Craig Hooper, Vice President of Sales, Marketing and External Affairs.
Dr. Hooper provided a broad overview on the ships and the manufacturing approach taken at the yard.
Some key elements from that overview follow.
Question: How would you distinguish the two ships?
Hooper: Both draw upon the company’s heritage in building sea-operating ferries.
But the JHSV is like an F-140 pick-up truck and the LCS is like a sports car.
With JHSV, the legacy as a ferry building company was harvested and new structures or more resilience was added.
With the LCS, you layered on top some very precise demands from the US Navy.
We put in a much more complex operating system and weapons systems as well.
Question: Both are built in a new yard. Could you talk about the manufacturing approach?
Hooper: Austal has built a modern modular shipbuilding factory. The factory was organized by looking at best practices at shipyards as well as from modern auto manufacturing plants.
We are ship manufacturers at the yard.
We have operate like an automobile manufacturing facility, where you start off with simple processes, and simple techniques that are shared between the two ships and two production lines, and then you build out from that common foundation.
You start with your panel or your piece of aluminum plate, and you add some 3D structure using simple basic repeatable techniques; and then you layer on three-dimensional structure, and you add complexity to it.
Eventually you have a section of the ship that you wheel out to the waterfront, and you can put together the ship there.
Question: So it is like building Lego blocks and creating a final structure.
Hooper: Exactly. They are modular ships in how they are built and how they can prepare for 21st century operations.
The bays are very flexible and can grow to the need as the Navy innovates and shapes new tools or capabilities to put into the mission bays.
Question: You are a new yard. Could you talk about your workforce?
Hooper: We are a young yard. We got started in 1989, and it’s grown from a little crew of about 50 people to 3,000-person powerhouse today. We’re growing up to 4,200.
Through the generosity of the State of Alabama, we can use a training center here where we’re basically anybody who wants to work can come here, get trained up, learn a skill. And have the opportunity to come and work to build some of the best ships in the U.S. Navy.
We have two things going for us, we’re a young yard, and we’re non-union, and that means that if you’re a promising worker that shows talent, you can rise to the top of this institution.
We have people who are supervisors that rocketed to the ranks. The only thing that limits you is your ambition and skill, and we’re also able to take chances on people who are totally nontraditional.
We have one worker that’s here who was homeless when she first started going through the training center. She was working at Subway one day a week, and she decided to go to training. She had a criminal record, she was in her 40s, homeless, and we trained her.
Now she’s one of our best welders. Everyone looks up to her; she’s on our firefighting team. She just bought her first new car. That type of opportunity is priceless, and the loyalty that you get from that is amazing.
We’ve managed to achieve one of the best worker-safety ratings in the industry, and complete a major ship program at the same time.
We built the yard with the idea that for example; we would be building joint high-speed vessels for a long time.
Originally the numbers people were predicting were the 40s. And then it went to 20, and then it went to 10.
We are not a big giant conglomerate. We’re just a little ship builder, and it’s hard for our financiers look at that trend and be as confident as you want them to be.
We’ve done what the Pentagon wanted us to do which was prepare and build a block-buy, deliver a block-buy contract. And then to have the contract cut in half, and then cut in half again is really tough.
Question: There should be a clear potential for exports as well, if the USN keeps the numbers up.
Hooper: That is true and we are talking to some nations currently about export possibilities.
It could be a very good asset for the Pacific for partner nations.
It’s something simple, robust, and it can be inoperable for anybody. Any of those new navies out there, Vietnam, the Philippines might be interested.
It’s scalable, and it lets you play with the U.S. Navy on a high level, and if you’re brand new Navy, and you’re in an area of some strategic challenge, it is a very good tool.
Question: Speaking of the Pacific how might the LCS and JHSV support distributed operations?
Hooper: The JHSV and the LCS can be an extension of the amphibious strike group and be a good supportive element. They can spread out the presence necessary for operations.
If you’ve got a big deck amphib backed with the option of moving to 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 different platforms that are distributed across a battle space ranging in the tens of thousands of miles, it expands presence.
This would allow you to reach out and touch in reasonable force the areas where you need to operate throughout the Pacific.
Question: As an Australian company, Austal has support facilities available in the Pacific for the USN as well. Could you discuss this?
Hooper: We are an Australian company.
We know the Pacific, and we have strategically oriented ourselves to be in a position to provide the support that these ships are going to need in the area where we believe they’re going to be operating.
Our headquarters is in Henderson, which is near Perth in Western Australia. We have a new shipyard in Philippines, and we have service centers in Singapore, Darwin, and elsewhere throughout the Western Pacific.
We’re able to leverage all of the existing relationships that we have between the U.S. subsidiary, the actual makers of the LCS, and joint high-speed vessel, and our relationship with our parent company, Austal Limited.
The other thing is that we’ve got the people there already trained and ready to work with aluminum support repairs.
We can preposition equipment there as well, and aside if there’s military equipment there, we’re just down the road from several military installations.
Our facilities in Henderson are just down the road from Sterling, which is one of Australia’s big up and coming naval bases.
We also co-located with military facilities out in Darwin. It’s a nice thing if you got a combination of a secured facility for those things that need securing.
Plus a trained labor base that knows your ships, and knows the basic technology of the propulsion systems, and the aluminum structure to do any of those emergent repairs that might have to be done.
Editor’s Note: We followed up this discussion with Austal with the “users” of the ship, in this case the analysts at the USMC Combat Development Command about how the JHSV fits in to the USN-USMC team’s thinking about operations. This interview will be forthcoming, but the slides below provided by Jim Strock of the USMC Combat Development Command provide some insights into USMC thinking.