Aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman transits the Elizabeth River from its homeport at Naval Station Norfolk to Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Victoria Granado)
The Navy is planning major upgrades at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and its three other public yards involving billions of dollars, as the service seeks to address chronic maintenance problems that have hampered its readiness to fight.
Improvements will focus on aging dry docks, new equipment and rethinking yard layouts, said Vice Adm. Tom Moore, who heads Naval Sea Systems Command. The investment in dry docks alone would be $3 billion to $4 billion over 30 years at these yards.
More hiring is also in the works — the Norfolk yard plans to hire about 500 in the months ahead — but Moore said people alone won’t solve the problem.
“I’ve got to provide an environment where they can get better tooling, better equipment and better layout, and then I can start reducing the cost of maintenance,” he said in an interview with the Daily Press.
His comments underscore what Navy leaders have been saying for months. For all the talk of expanding the fleet from 275 ships to 355 ships — which would include an extra aircraft carrier built at Newport News Shipbuilding — new construction alone isn’t the answer. Congress must invest in maintenance over the short and long term to grow the fleet, Navy leaders said.
The Norfolk Naval Shipyard, located in Portsmouth, maintains ships and submarines of the Atlantic fleet and draws workers from across Hampton Roads.
The Navy also operates the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Honolulu, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility with sites in Washington state.
Norfolk is the oldest by far, having marked its 250th anniversary last year. Originally established as Gosport Shipyard, it is actually older than the Department of the Navy by 31 years.
Dry docks are a “must-have” improvement, Moore said. Driving the urgency are the new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers and upgraded Virginia-class submarines.
The aircraft carrier dry dock at Norfolk isn’t capable of handling a Ford-class ship coming in for maintenance. That’s because next-generation Fords have different electrical and cooling requirements than Nimitz-class carriers.
To give the Navy enough time to improve the dry dock at Norfolk, the Gerald R. Ford will be diverted to Newport News Shipbuilding for its first extended maintenance period around 2020, Moore said.
“We won’t dry dock her again until 2024, so we’ve got some time to make those modifications,” he said.
On submarines, the Navy plans to build future Virginia-class boats with an additional mid-body section called the Virginia Payload Module. It will contain additional launch tubes to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles or launch unmanned underwater vehicles.
Because those submarines will be longer, the submarine dry docks must be lengthened. The first boat equipped with the payload module won’t deliver until the latter part of the 2020s, “so that’s a little bit further out,” Moore said.
Another focus will be yard layout. Norfolk was originally designed as a new construction yard, and construction and maintenance have different work flows.
The Portsmouth naval yard in Maine had industrial engineers examine its workflow and the result was eye-opening.
“They give you a spaghetti chart that shows where a worker has to walk to get work done,” Moore said. “Then when they upgrade the plan, you see the efficient flow.”
Moore said he’s approved similar studies for the yards in Norfolk, Honolulu and Washington state. He expects to have a workflow plan to present to Navy leadership by February 2018.
The third priority is making investments in new welding machines, lathes, cutting equipment and other tools.
“When you add that in with improving how the shipyards are laid out and how we bring materials into the yards, that’s a key reason why we’re going to get more productive,” he said.
On the employee side, Moore wants total employment at the shipyards to reach 36,100; it’s now about 34,000.
Employment in Norfolk naval yard stands at about 10,250, with plans to reach 10,750 by the end of the fiscal year in September, said spokeswoman Terri Davis.
A ramp-up in hiring brings new faces but not experience. Today half of the workers at the Navy’s public shipyards have less than five years under their belts, Moore said. The Navy is streamlining its training to compensate.
It used to take four to five years for new workers to reach a point where they could work independently on a nuclear-powered ship at a journeyman level. Now workers with less experience can get their hands dirty a lot faster.
For example, someone training as an electrician can be taught to tear down and overhaul circuit breakers — work that can be performed in the shop when an aircraft carrier comes in for maintenance.
The Navy has also changed its training to appeal to younger, tech-savvy employees. Learning centers at shipyards use virtual reality and computer simulations to train prospective welders, painters and other skilled trades workers.
Newport News Shipbuilding has been developing these high-tech tools for several years. At this year’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Maryland, it introduced a mobile classroom of sorts that will introduce its workers to different digital shipbuilding tools.
The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries and the exclusive builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, plans to build the future USS Enterprise without relying on paper drawings.
“I’m absolutely on board with what Newport News is doing,” Moore said. “You hear about building CVN-80 (Enterprise) without drawings. I think Newport News has been on the leading edge of that, and I want to embrace that in the naval shipyards as well.”
Moore said he expects the first installments of this long-term investment to start showing up in the fiscal year 2019 budget request. That’s also around the time advocates of a larger Navy fleet will be pushing for new construction.
Both are needed, the admiral said.
“It’s kind of an artificial constraint that says you either buy ships or maintain ships,” he said. “It’s not one or the other. You have to do both. We’re not going to get to 355 ships if you can’t do both.”
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