Navy officials on Wednesday admitted the Navy’s current plan to procure the future America-class amphibious assault ship, LHA-10, about a decade after LHA-9 would increase costs and impact the industrial base.
The Navy’s FY ‘23 budget request seeks funds to finish funding procurement of LHA-9, which Congress has funded incrementally for several years. However, the plans slow the purchase of LHA-10 to FY ‘31, eight or 11 years after LHA-9, depending on what procurement year is assigned to LHA-9.
During a House Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) pressed Navy Department officials on the impact of prolonging building LHAs that far apart, compared to the previous standard of only a few years between ships.
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps, for Combat Development and Integration, told the panel the ships are at about an 11-year gap under the current schedule and highlighted how useful they are.
“Between LHA-9 and LHA-10, there’s an 11-year gap, depending on when you decide it was appropriated…we’re returning to well decks with the flight deck, it’s a very capable platform, very important to what we’re doing, very important to the to the nation’s crisis response force,” he said.
Jay Stefany, Principal Civilian Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, admitted this distance between ship construction is not ideal for the industrial base.
“For the LHA-type ship, we see about a five-year spacing between ships as ideal from a learning perspective in the industrial base, the suppliers staying online and be able to produce anything. More than that would be not just degradation of the ability of the supply base to support but increase the cost, as we see reverse learning or negative learning what we call it,” he said.
“So five years is ideal. As [Heckl] mentioned, the ship now is at the nine or 10-year spacing from LHA-9. So we would see a cost increase and industrial base impact both,” he continued.
Last month during the Sea Air Space expo on April 4, Kari Wilkinson, executive vice president at HII [HII] and president of Ingalls Shipbuilding, told reporters the ideal centers, or time between procuring LHAs, is “about four years apart, three to four years is kind of the sweet spot for the large decks.”
That number is “based on the feed-fed relationship – as you finish the shop work, it takes a certain amount of time and then that ideal center for those particular platforms – you would then want to roll on to that same work for the next ship.”
She said as one ship goes off to sea trials HII wants to use the previous work crew for the next ship hitting the water shortly thereafter.
When asked the implications are of building LHAs closer to 10 years apart, she said it will make the shipbuilding less efficient and harder to do.
“We love, from an efficiency standpoint and the best affordability, we like to keep the same people building the same ships over and over again, and we’re therefore getting really good at technology insertion, but we would obviously like to see those ships a whole lot closer together and so we’ll continue to advocate for that.”
However, Wilkinson said that HII will “build whatever our customer needs when they need it, but it certainly does help us and it makes it easier when they are a little bit closer together.”
She said in the meantime, for flexibility, the company can try to move people between programs to help mitigate the change.
On Wednesday, Luria expressed frustration that she and her colleagues keep hearing from Navy officials the need to improve the industrial base and help maintain training in the workforce, “yet you submit a request that you admit is more expensive in the long run, and essentially guts the workforce as far as building these large deck amphibious ships.”
The LHA ships are built at HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss.
Last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee inserted language into the FY ‘22 defense authorization bill extending the Navy’s allowance by one year to procure the San Antonio-class Flight II amphibious transport dock ships LPD-32, LPD-33 and LPD-34 as well as LHA-10 all at once (Defense Daily, Sept. 28, 2021).
The push to procure the ships together is to help ensure the industrial base maintains a steady schedule at the Pascagoula shipyard and to save about $1 billion over using four separate contracts. Congress originally approved a measure allowing the Navy to procure all four ships at once in the FY ‘21 defense authorization bill (Defense Daily, June 11, 2020)
However, in June 2021, Stefany told a SASC panel while the Navy reached a “handshake agreement” with HII on what such a deal would look like, the Pentagon wanted to defer the decision to buy the ships until after working out the FY ‘23 budget cycle and deciding on the new overall force structure (Defense Daily, June 9, 2021).