By Emelie Rutherford
Louisiana politicians are pushing to have Northrop Grumman [NOC] build two more Navy amphibious ships than planned at its ill-fated Avondale facility, and defense-minded lawmakers are busy assessing the company’s potential exit from the shipbuilding business.
The Los Angeles-based company said Tuesday it will consolidate its Gulf Coast shipyards at its Mississippi facilities and explore selling off its shipbuilding business. Louisiana’s congressional delegation is fighting Northrop Grumman’s plans to stop work at its New Orleans-area Avondale yard in 2013 after building the 23rd and 25th LPD-class amphibious ships there.
The Louisiana lawmakers plan to hold a conference call with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in the coming days. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told Defense Daily an idea gaining steam among her colleagues is to have Northrop Grumman build LPD-26 and LPD-27 at Avondale, a move she said would extend the 2013 closing date by two additional years.
"We’re going to be talking with Secretary Mabus about trying to figure out a way to make that possible," she said.
"We’re all so disappointed at this particular company," Landrieu said at the Capitol. "They’ve got their eyes on their bottom line instead of the good workers of Louisiana. And while I understand that businesses do have to keep an eye on the bottom line, I think that loyalty and partnership should count for something. And they really have taken a potentially unnecessary step."
Landrieu noted that she, as a defense appropriator, helped secure funding for additional LPD ships and in doing so believed the final two ships would be built at Avondale.
"It was supposed to be built at Avondale in the first place," she said about the two vessels.
Landrieu argued that if Avondale is given additional time to prepare for its closure, arrangements potentially could be made for another manufacturer to take over the site. Avondale is one of the state’s largest private manufacturers and supports 5,000 jobs there. The senator argued Washington should not allow Avondale to begin shuttering now, just as Louisiana is grappling with the BP oil spill and still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
She said Louisiana lawmakers "could potentially" seek to keep the Avondale shipbuilding facility open. She argued it could be risky for the Navy to only have one major shipyard–Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls location in Pascagoula, Miss.–to rely on in the Gulf Coast.
"Having redundancy along the Gulf Coast with shipbuilding, particularly because that’s the corridor for hurricanes, the target zone,…I think has some merit," she said. She noted Avondale suffered much less damage than Ingalls did from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Louisiana lawmakers planned to send a letter to Mabus, though it had not been sent as of press time yesterday.
Ingalls has strong congressional muscle behind it, including Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor (D-Miss.).
Some observers said yesterday that the Navy doesn’t dictate where shipbuilders like Northrop Grumman choose to build their ships for the sea service. Company spokesman Randy Belote said it makes its plans for where to build the Navy ships based on the service’s shipbuilding plan.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told Pentagon reporters yesterday that the company’s changing shipbuilding approach is "fundamentally a decision for Northrop Grumman."
He said while the Pentagon wants "a healthy and sustainable shipbuilding industrial base," the "affordability of shipbuilding is a real issue." Northrop Grumman has described the Avondale location as redundant and the Ingalls facility as underutilized, he noted.
"If this decision ultimately leads…to more affordable ships for the (Defense) Department without harming the industrial base, then it’s a good thing," Morrell said.
Lawmakers from states beyond Louisiana are weighing what it would mean if Northrop Grumman–which has shipyards in Mississippi, Virginia, and California–offloads its shipbuilding business.
House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said he talked to Northrop Grumman CEO and President Wes Bush about the future of Northrop Grumman’s Newport News, Va. shipyard, which has nuclear aircraft carriers.
General Dynamics [GD] appears to be the only potential buyer, Dicks noted to reporters yesterday.
"It’s a very important facility," the congressman said at the Capitol.
He declined to comment on Louisiana lawmakers’ push to have two additional LPDs built at Avdondale, saying he had not yet seen a proposal.