By Geoff Fein

The mid-November contract award to Austal USA for design and construction of the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) was the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of hard work and will enable the company to be the lead on its second Navy shipbuilding effort, a company official said.

“It really enables the company to go to the next level…where we will actually be the prime…it puts us in a position where we will be able to manage the program directly and have direct effect on the outcome,” Joe Rella, president and chief operating officer of Austal USA, told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

“So it is very important to us in that respect. We’re building facilities to accommodate construction in a modular fashion for JHSV and future Littoral Combat Ships as well,” he added.

Austal USA, which is based in Mobile, Ala., beat out Louisiana-based Bollinger Shipyards and Maine-based General Dynamics [GD] Bath Iron Works for the JHSV contract.

“We feel fortunate to be awarded the contract and certainly respect both Bollinger and BIW, and we are very honored [to be] in that fine company…to be the winner of the program,” Rella said.

General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, a subcontractor to Austal USA, will be the ship mission system integrator over the life of the expected 10-ship program.

Austal USA is also teamed with General Dynamics on LCS-2, the all-aluminum, trimaran Independence.

“This hasn’t happened overnight. It’s been a journey…that Austal has embarked upon when they first located here nine years ago,” Rella said. “It’s the culmination of nine years of effort to put the people, the plant, and processes in place to be considered qualified to be a prime contractor for the U.S. Navy.”

Rella noted it was a combination of the strength of Austal’s proposal and its people that helped the company win the JHSV contract.

Austal will design and construct the first 103-meter JHSV, with options for nine additional vessels expected to be exercised between FY ’09 and FY ’13. The contract is potentially worth $1.6 billion if the Navy decides to build all 10 JHSVs.

JHSV will be a catamaran instead of a trimaran, and Austal will provide an aluminum hulled ship, Rella said. “I think it will be a unique ship for the Navy and Army. For the mission, it’s perfectly suited.

“We proposed a vessel closely aligned with vessels we have built here at Austal USA in the past which gave a certain degree of confidence to the Navy that we were not straying too far from our core competency,” he said. “The other is our expansion plans in way of facilities and the methodology in which we are going to apply to build the JHSV, processes of which mimic the methodologies used by Austal in Perth [Australia], which meant that it wasn’t a science experiment, it was proven practice…a proven methodology that had real world successful results. It was a confidence builder in that respect.”

The other element of that are the people, Rella added.

“The ability to hire and retain folks and train them was a big element of it. We currently have a trained workforce in place that would be sufficient to build JHSV, sans any additional LCS vessels,” he said.

Should another LCS be awarded to Austal, the company will only need to hire about 300 to 400 folks when construction begins on JHSV in about a year from now, Rella said. “Which basically gives us plenty of runway before we need to get to that number.”

Construction on General Dynamics’ and Austal’s second LCS would begin ahead of JHSV, Rella said. Which means Austal will have already started modular fabrication in its existing sheds, he added. “So what we would do is six station modular fabrication that mimics the sequencing we will have in the modular manufacturing facility (MMF).”

Austal would probably start fabrication of new LCS modules in March of ’09, Rella said.

“So we would build until the MMF was ready and then we would start the line building LCS modules and then when JHSV engineering and design is complete and ready for production we would start in with the JHSV modules,” he added.

Austal USA is in the midst of a major expansion to its shipyard, Rella noted.

“We are in Phase I, which is half of a 700,000 square foot modular manufacturing facility that we are building,” he explained. “So Phase I is roughly 350,000 square feet of manufacturing space that is currently under construction at our facility, along with a 70,000 square foot warehouse. So we have an enormous plant expansion currently underway.”

Winning the JHSV award will also bring economic benefit to Mobile, Rella noted.

“It will be a huge boost economically for the area. We will be hiring engineers and designers….we are currently hiring folks…so the design and engineering portion of this, which is the first part of the program, will result in probably 40 to 50 engineering and design folks coming to the area,” he said. “The production trades will start to ramp up the second half of the year as we near production. And if we have the LCS program continuing with new ships, we will have that 400 or so ramp up. So it will be a 400-person hiring program between now and this time next year. That will be a sizable bump to the local economy.”