“What I have seen here at Austal, I have not seen in any other shipyards,” said Adm. Gary Roughead, the outgoing Chief Naval Officer. “What excites me is the commitment and innovation that have gone into building a shipyard that I consider to be state of the art and at the leading edge of shipbuilding.”
Austal is Mobile’s largest industrial employer with more than 2,100 workers. The shipyard has contracts with the Navy to build littoral combat ships and high-speed transports, and has said that it will double the size of its facility and workforce in the next few years to be able to complete the work.
Industry insiders have lauded Austal’s Mobile shipyard for its advanced used of modular production. Instead of building the hull of the ship all at once, Austal builds dozens of ship sections, or modules, and then welds them together.
Roughead praised Austal’s shipbuilding processes. But he also said he was equally impressed with the Maritime Training Center built by Alabama Industrial Development Training and run jointly by the organization and Austal. The center trains workers to weld and operate heavy machinery.
“The buildings don’t make the ships,” Roughead said. “The people make the ships.”
Roughead will be retiring from the Navy Sept. 29, to be replaced by Adm. Jonathan Greenert. Roughead said Wednesday that he doesn’t have any post-retirement plans beyond spending time with both his and his wife’s parents.
Wednesday’s tour of the second littoral combat ship built at Austal was appropriate for Roughead. The admiral said one of his first trips as Chief Naval Officer was to see an LCS, and steering the program through a troubled four years was his “highest priority.”
Littoral combat ships are speedy, light-armed vessels designed to operate in shallow coastal waters.
Instead of designing the ships to be able to handle any enemy in the sea, the Navy decided to make the seaframes very open and then create a number of interchangeable mission packages to equip the vessels for specific tasks.
The program’s ride has not been smooth. Ship costs have more than doubled from initial projections, and mission packages aren’t expected to be ready until 2016 at the earliest. Several members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been highly critical of the program.
But the Navy convinced Congress last winter to sign off on 10-ship contracts for both Austal and Lockheed Martin, which is building a different design of the seaframe in Wisconsin. The Navy plans to buy 55 LCS eventually, which would comprise more than one-sixth of its entire fleet.
“The value of these ships is going to be off the scale,” Roughead said today. “The capability, flexibility, efficiency and speed that they will be able to operate globally with is going to be an aspect of the Navy that we haven’t had before. I think it’s going to be huge for us.”