HII’s Ingalls seeks stability in amphibs, ‘absolutely’ eyeing second frigate yard competition

HII’s Ingalls seeks stability in amphibs, ‘absolutely’ eyeing second frigate yard competition

An MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, assigned to the “Dragons” of Marine Medium-Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepares to land on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) Feb. 15, 2020.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh)

SNA 2023 — Having spent more than $1 billion modernizing its Pascagoula shipyard over the past five years, an HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding executive says the company is focused on seeing stability in the amphibious shipbuilding budget as well as the potential second yard for the Constellation-class frigate program.

Kari Wilkinson, executive vice president for Ingalls Shipbuilding, told reporters here at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium on Tuesday that her shipyard is “fully modernized” and ready to take on whatever work the Navy awards it.

Ingalls Shipbuilding, one of the key shipbuilding units of HII, currently builds four types of new warships: amphibious assault ships (LHA), amphibious transport docks (LPD), destroyers (DDG) and the US Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter. Wilkinson told reporters that the cutter production line is expected to end around 2026.

Meanwhile, the Navy in its fiscal 2023 budget proposal floated truncating the San Antonio-class amphibious ship class, despite the aggressive lobbying of some on Capitol Hill to maintain a minimal number of those vessels.

Having lost out to Fincantieri Marinette Marine on the Constellation-class frigate program and Austal USA for the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter, the destroyer and amphib portfolios represent much of the shipyard’s expected future new construction workload.

“If we were writing out the budgets and the shipbuilding plans, we’d want to see LPDs continue on roughly two-year centers, LHAs continue on four-year centers [and] DDGs continue on nine- to 12-month centers,” Wilkinson said. In the context of shipbuilding, the “centers” refers to the pace at which ships are bought and subsequently built. That pace directly correlates to a shipbuilders’ ability to hire and retain its workforce.

When production lines are truncated or the quantity of work drops — as they would if the Navy stopped buying previously planned San Antonio-class vessels — it would have a direct impact on Ingalls’ ability to hire.

While speaking to reporters, Wilkinson was also straight forward about her company’s interest in becoming the second shipyard producing Constellation-class frigates. “Yes, absolutely,” she said when asked if HII was eyeing that contract.

Navy officials have consistently said they could tap a second shipyard to produce Constellation-class frigates, but they’ve also been tight lipped in terms of when that award might come, citing the need to get the lead ship right before thinking about alternate builders.

Ingalls’ workload is sure to be a focus for defense hawks in the new Congress. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, represents the company’s home state of Mississippi and is now the most senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which directly oversees the Navy’s shipbuilding plans. Meanwhile, Rep. Trent Kelly, also a Republican from Mississippi, is expected to take over as the top Republican on the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, according to POLITICO, another key spot with direct influence over Navy shipbuilding.

Kelly’s predecessor, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. and historically a seapower hawk in the House, is expected to become the new chairman of the tactical air and land forces subcommittee, Breaking Defense reported in December.

What will likely remain a steadily funded boon for Ingalls moving forward, however, is the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, a workhorse ship for the Navy and one that is expected to receive some of the service’s best technology by the time the latest iteration, the Flight IIIs, are brought online.

Wilkinson credited the Navy for its approach in gradually adding changes to successive ships before reaching a fully equipped Flight III DDG with the Jack Lucas (DDG-125), which just recently underwent sea trials in December.

“It was a great way to build a little, test a little. That’s been the mantra of the DDG program,” she said.