Shipbuilding was one of the first “heavy” industries to take hold in early Colonial America, thanks to the abundant raw materials and vast selection of potential sites for shipyards. Then, as now, shipbuilding is one of the great American heavy industries, one that still employs tens of thousands of workers at shipyards and subcontractors. In just the past few months, a new corporate giant has emerged on the U.S. shipbuilding scene: Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. (HII). A spin-off of Northrop Grumman, HII is now the largest warship builder in the world, constructing the full range of U.S. warships from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and amphibious ships to submarines and destroyers. Running this huge corporate assembly of shipyards, facilities, and workers is Mike Petters. Petters, who has worked in the yard since he left the Navy, has a lot to say about ships, shipbuilding, and the company he runs, and was kind enough to sit down with Air Power at Sea and share some of his thoughts.
Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation: What is the “lay of the land” for Huntington Ingalls right now? What can you tell us about the component parts of HII? And what do you feel like this new corporate entity is going to contribute to American shipbuilding and the classes of ships that they build?
Mike Petters: Well, if you start with our primary customer, the U.S. Navy, and you look at the composition of the planned 313-ship fleet – whether you think about it in terms of priorities or complexity – what you see are aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, and amphibs. And to my way of thinking, those platforms really define the rest of the Navy’s structure. All of the rest of the Navy’s structure is really in support of those platforms.
And today, if you look around the world, you see our Navy heavily operating in the Middle East and in the Med and the Atlantic and the Pacific and in Japan, providing assistance. You name it; the U.S. Navy is there. They are there on aircraft carriers, like Enterprise [CVN 65] and Vinson [CVN 70] in the 5th Fleet, Reagan [CVN 76] and George Washington [CVN 73] out in WestPac area, and on amphibs like Essex [LHD 2], Kearsarge [LHD 3], Boxer [LHD 4], and Peleliu [LHA 5]. Those ships are all out there supporting U.S. Navy operations in the national interest around the world, and those are platforms that are uniquely built by Huntington Ingalls Industries.
In those four classes of ships we are sole source in carriers and amphibs, we are on the sole source team for nuclear submarines, and we are 50 percent of the destroyer business. It is our intent to do everything that we can to help the Navy be successful in achieving its objectives on fleet structure and operational capability because the more successful they are, obviously, the more successful we will be.
What made you want to go and take this business public?
Well, first of all, I would say that it was not my decision. This was a decision that the Northrop Grumman Board very diligently considered. I think that the background is that, at the time that Northrop Grumman got into shipbuilding, there was a desire at the Pentagon to have contractors actually do all of the integration of ships – not just the platform, but also the communications, the weapon systems, the sensors, and the radars. At that time the Navy wanted all that stuff to be integrated by the big primes. So when Northrop Grumman had shipbuilding to go along with the rest of its business, it looked like there was a great opportunity for synergy there.
Over the last 10 years, however, that hasn’t really panned out. A lot of that integration wound up moving back into the government. The government decided that it would rather be more involved in that, instead of less. As a result, the synergy between the platform part of Northrop Grumman, the shipbuilding piece of the business, and the rest of Northrop Grumman, never really materialized.
Last summer, the Northrop Grumman Board of Directors announced that it was going to consider, in light of this lack of synergy, what its strategic alternatives were. And there were a range of alternatives. I can tell you that they looked at each one of them with due diligence, and came to the conclusion that the best outcome for the business, for our customers, and for our shareholders was to spin the shipbuilding sector off and have it trade independently as a public company.
Please talk a bit about the origins of this company back in the 1800s. What did it start out as compared to what it is today, which is the world’s largest warship building company?
There are really two threads to HII’s history. The first thread is the one that you referred to, which is that in the 1880s, Collins P. Huntington came here. He was involved in the creation of the transcontinental railroad, and Hampton Roads happens to be one of the largest natural harbors in the world. It is a great port city, and those railroads I mentioned ended right here, or began here, depending on how you looked at it. And Mr. Huntington decided that this was the place where materials and goods were going to be transported either from ship to train, or from train to ship. In either case, ships needed to be repaired, and as a result, a small ship repair operation to sit at that terminal was needed. So that was the beginning of the shipyard at Newport News. About 15 years later is when Newport News started to get itself into Navy shipbuilding and, in fact, built seven of the 16 ships of the Great White Fleet. And so the roots at Newport News for Navy capital shipbuilding go back over a hundred years. The second thread was on the Gulf Coast, where Robert S. Ingalls from Alabama, a steel mill guy who came down to Pascagoula [Miss.], and on a site that had really been building ships for quite a while, formalized and created the Ingalls Iron Works. That was in 1938, right before the buildup for World War II. And so Ingalls immediately found itself in the warship building business.
Let’s talk about the Virginia Tidewater, where you call home and your company has much of its roots. What is it about this place and the people there that make it such a good place to build ships in particular, and aircraft carriers specifically?
You know, I think shipbuilders are a very special class of people and I mean that with all the respect I can muster. You know, it’s a business that is handed down from generation to generation. In both of our principal yard sites we have shipbuilders that reach back for three, four, or in some cases five generations. Certainly five in Newport News, and at least four generations down in Pascagoula. This is a craft that gets handed down at the dinner table. And what’s unique about it, in my view, is you not only have to learn to work with your hands, but you put your head and heart into it too, and things like honesty and integrity and commitment and engagement. Those are the kinds of things you learn at home that you bring to work and apply to these great, great ships. Because you know that when a U.S. Navy ship sails over the horizon, it is a true statement of national purpose. And yes, it’s also got the lifeblood and future of our country on board in the form of the sailors that man the ship. But it’s actually a testament to the great citizens of this country who are back here at home who built that ship in the first place. That’s the same whether it’s in Tidewater or in Pascagoula, but that is exactly the heritage of shipbuilders. In Tidewater, specifically, we do have the advantage of having the largest naval port here in this large natural harbor, which has always attracted the folks who want to go to sea and want to be involved in that industry. But as I said, in Pascagoula, Miss., there have been ships being built on that part of the Gulf Coast, stretching back from even before Mr. Ingalls actually set up his operation. And I think that its a little bit about geography, but it’s a lot about culture and heritage and about the citizens of those great regions.
Talking about that a little further, the HII yard at Newport News, for whatever reason, has been the “go-to” yard when it’s come to building U.S. aircraft carriers, from the Ranger (CV 4)to the Ford, which is going together here today. You were talking about the fact that today the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who built Ranger and Enterprise and Essex are now doing it on the Ford and on the America on the Gulf Coast. Do you see those workers today carrying down those same ethics, values, and qualities that make great warships into what you’re building on the docks today? Do you really still see that direct line between the old yard workers of the ’30s and ’40s, and the shipwrights and ship workers today?
Every single minute of every single day. There’s a lot of science in this business, and there’s a lot of technology as well. But at the end of the day, this business is a craft and an art. And in the hand-off from the ship fitter to the welder, from the pipe fitter to the pipe welder, from the machinist to the machinery installation folks, for all of those guys that hand their system off to the test guys to integrate all of that production with a crew that’s coming to life, what has happened is that the complexity has gone up dramatically. This means that we have to be even better today than ever before in all those skills that we’ve used for generations.
Just a couple of days ago I walked all the way through the shipyard at Newport News. I did that a couple weeks ago on the Gulf Coast, walked through all the ships and all the shops. To me, that’s as exciting as it gets in our business – to see the people and spend time with the folks who are doing the hands-on work of shipbuilding. To listen to the pride in their voices when they tell you what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, the obstacles they’re overcoming and the successes they have accomplished. When a shipbuilder goes home at night, a shipbuilder knows that he or she has put in a full day’s work on behalf of this nation.
It really does take something almost like a river or a human circulatory system to build these ships doesn’t it? Thousands of people go into HII’s yards, people come out, and the final products are these amazing mountains of steel that come out at the end?
I’ll go one step further. At about the time I became a shipwright, I was a young “whippersnapper,” a project manager trying to figure out how to do things more and better. I convinced our management to invest a little bit of time and money into a software project that would model all of the material flows and all the personnel/work flows in the carrier business. And we spent a lot of time trying to build this model. What we found out when we pushed the “go” button was that we couldn’t possibly build a carrier in anything less than 10 or 11 years. Yet we routinely did it in eight years here in the yard. And after we worked on this for several months, and finally got to the point of exasperation, we said, “Why can’t we make this reconcile with what actually happens?” And what we realized was that what we could not model in our system are the interactions between the different teams. You know what I mean. Joe calls Susan up and says, “I know you don’t need to put this thing out of your shop until next Friday, but if I had it today, it would really clear the way for me to do something tomorrow.” And Susan knows Joe and says, “You know what? I think I can do that!” And she gets her team to turn a little bit, and they not only do what they’re supposed to do that day, but they turn out a little bit for Joe and his guys, and that creates opportunity down the road in our business. To me, that was an incredibly powerful lesson. And what I eventually realized is, you can’t model this work ethic and culture of our people. You can never take it for granted, and you can’t model it.
You were obviously a shipwright here at Newport News, along with being the program director, on the Nimitz-class (CVN 68) program. What was the evolution over time of the Nimitz class, between how it was built in the ’60s and ’70s, and how you finished up with the George H.W. Bush and are now doing the evolutionary derivative of that, the Ford. How did the design of the Nimitzes evolve in terms of how you guys built them there in the yard between the ’60s and this last decade?
I would offer probably two major changes or approaches that probably had as much impact as anything. When we first did the Nimitz design it was all on paper. And so over the course of the life of the class, you always had to go through this question of, “Do we ever want to shift this part of the ship design into an electronic medium?” because as our manufacturing techniques improved, we found that they started to rely more and more on electronic designs. So the translation of that design from paper to electronics became something that was always a question whenever you started a new ship. And we didn’t really fully do that until the very end of the class. But it set the stage for us to go forward and do a completely electronic design for the Ford. I think that the design trail of starting with a paper design and carrying that all the way through, and updating it as you went forward, became a major kind of evolution throughout the process over the 40 years of the program.
What that led to was a major decision to move in the eighties from building the ship from the keel up to moving it towards modular construction. Modular construction is what a lot of shipyards do around the world. It is an efficient way to do work. You build the modules, and in places where services are accessible, you complete the module, and then lift them into place to assemble the ship. By using some of the design techniques and the manufacturing techniques that were evolving in parallel, we were able to bring in modular construction. Those were probably the shipbuilding techniques that occurred over the life of the ship that truly kept the costs under control.
There was one other thing that happened that really had as much impact on keeping the costs under control as anything. You may remember the Harry S. Truman [CVN 75] was the second ship of a two-ship buy. Back in 1988, the government actually bought two ships, John C. Stennis [CVN 74] and the Truman, in one contract. And this was the second time this had happened because in 1982 we had bought Abraham Lincoln [CVN 72] and George Washington [CVN 73] in a two-ship contract. So while there were four ships in total, they were really all in continuous serial production together. We could size the work force. We could run the ship through the plant, run the products through the plant, run the ship through the dry docks and the piers, and we could do that all in a very efficient manner. Having those multiple-ship contracts and those four ships sitting in the middle of that program was a joy to us. You may think of the Nimitz class as a 10-ship program. But CVNs 72 through 75 were kind of right in the dead center of it. We were able to launch one ship and we would, within a month, lay the keel for the next one. And the shops would move from building one particular unit to the next one. As soon as they had delivered the pump room to the platen area for assembly into a module for final assembly, they would turn around and start building the next pump room for the next carrier.
What I’ve seen in shipbuilding over my career is that when you are able to set up that serial production line where people can go and do it the first time and then go right back and do it again, and go right back and do it again, you can absolutely get real, no kidding, bona fide savings out of the program and be incredibly efficient. When, on the other hand, you go and build the pump room and then disband a team because there’s no next pump room to build, only to bring them back four or five years later to build that next pump room, you do not get any efficiency. The second one is going to have the same first-time costs as the first one. I think that with the carrier program, that contracting evolution was very important. And since then, the programs have started to stretch out again, and we’re starting to get into the range of asking of whether they are affordable or not. And now the Pentagon wants to build them five years apart. I’m happy about five years right now, because we haven’t been on five years for more than a decade. And so we need to hold that.
We’ve been talking about big carriers so far in this interview, but HII is also building some rather interesting little carriers down on the Gulf Coast.
We build the large-deck amphibs at Ingalls. The last one we built was USS Makin Island [LHD 8], and we delivered that in 2009. As the follow-on ship to that program, we are building America [LHA 6].
In the America, you’ve obviously got something I know you like, which is a good, buildable design that your Ingalls unit has been working on since the late 1960s. What could you do with those if the Navy asks you? What could you see those evolving into if you wanted to do evolution with them?
The big question is going to be about the well deck. The existing Wasp-class LHDs have a very substantial well deck capability. The LHA, America, does not. I think one of the things we’re seeing in this era of irregular warfare, and in special missions, is the great flexibility that the amphibs give us. Between the flight decks and the well decks and the medical centers and the room for people, these ships offer real value for the nation and the world. There’s tremendous flexibility in those platforms.
I think the question for the next five or six years is going to be if and when we put the well deck back into the LHAs. That’s going to be an issue, and if you decide you want to go back to a well deck ship, you can’t decide that when you get ready to contract for it. You have to do the design work early so that you can scope the well deck in when you go to contract. Otherwise the ship will become prohibitively expensive.
The America, LHA 6, is an amphibious ship without a well deck, on the heels of building two similar classes of ship with a well deck. First and foremost will be what are you going to do relative to the well deck? The second thing is how do you make sure that the flight deck has the flexibility to maintain or to operate the aircraft of the next 30 years, whatever those might be – unmanned or manned STOVL jets, vertical like the F-35B, V-22s, and perhaps the helicopters of the future. We want to be sure that we don’t err on that issue, and to make sure we interact with the design of the flight deck so that we don’t design away our future capabilities.
In other words, you always want to leave the growth potential in there to go back if you need to, or to evolve forward as well?
I think what carriers have shown us and that the large deck amphibs show us is that size creates its own level of flexibility. If you increase the volume you have at sea, the volume you have to work with, that gives you more flexibility to handle the things that you didn’t foresee when you designed the ship. If you decide that you build an aircraft carrier for a specific set of missions, but then you need to go do tsunami relief, the fact that you’ve got a lot of space means that you can reconfigure that ship and go do that mission. I think that one of the challenges that we have is that sometimes folks want to step back and look at what the “dollar-per-ton” figure might be, or some sort of quantitative metric like that. Yet what you can’t really do is put any sort of number on the qualitative metric of flexibility. And that’s where the value of size lies.
As you’re stacking the first of the lift assemblies for the Ford, and you’re starting to cut steel for what will be CVN 79, can you talk a little bit about where you think this new generation of carriers is going? Obviously the Ford is the first of a new class. I know people say, “Oh, it looks about the same on the outside,” but you and I both know that what’s on the inside is vastly different. What kinds of new ideas and processes do you see in the future for carrier construction there at Newport News and, if you want, down at Ingalls?
In a word: stability. From the construction standpoint, stability in the design allows us to create front-end loaded construction plans. Things are cheaper to build when they’re not in the dry dock or the water already, and so being able to have a good design that we can bank on being a final design and building to that in our shops is something that actually improves our business dramatically. So we’ll be building Ford as a new design for the next four or five years. When we start to build the CVN 79 hull, we will actually be incorporating all the stuff we learned on Ford in that construction path. The same thing with America [LHA 6]. America is, without the well deck, a bit of a new design ship. And when we start LHA 7, we’ll be into a full serial production run on that class of vessels. So making sure that we put into place the phase plan, the operating plans, and the risk management plans that you need for effectively capturing the efficiencies of serial production is a major focus for us. As far as where the ships themselves are going, on the Ford we have an electrical distribution system that creates a lot of flexibility in the ship for newer technology. I think that you’re going see the carriers and unmanned aircraft come together in some pretty powerful ways over the next decade. I’m not a CONOPS [Concept of Operations] kind of guy, but it doesn’t take a CONOPS guy to figure out that there’s a lot of interesting things happening out there right now with unmanned aircraft. That, together with a four-and-a-half-acre flight deck in a particular vicinity creates a lot of flexibility and capability.
It’s a fair bet that Ford’s going to last a half-century. And sometime around 2065 when you and I will probably both be dead and gone, your great-grandchildren are going to be building the replacement for the Ford and the successors for it. What do you think that carrier’s going to look like? What kinds of airplanes are going to fly off of it? Do you have any vision for what that looks like a half-century from now when commissioned?
Well, we should be so lucky that there will be people that will be in a position to build that platform.
I’m not a futurist. But here are a couple things that I do know: I know that aircraft, when they have a land-based runway, are able to create superiority because they don’t have to worry about the operating conditions. And I know that the United States Navy has had a fundamental advantage for the last 65 years of being able to take aircraft with land-based capability to sea. No other nation in the world has been able to take the high-performance aircraft to sea like the United States Navy has been able to do every single day since before World War II.
So those state-of-the-art aircraft are going to need to be supported aboard a great shipboard environment because I don’t think that that advantage is something that you are ever going to want to lose. What the U.S. Navy has demonstrated is that having that advantage creates local superiority, as well as a global superiority. I don’t know whether those planes in 2065 will be manned or unmanned. I don’t know if they’ll require catapults or electromagnetic launching systems. But I do know that we’re going to want the U.S. Navy, and the Chief of Naval Operations [CNO] of 2065 is going to want to have the capability to have air superiority at sea a long ways from home.
The second thing I would say is that anybody who has ever owned a boat, whether it’s a small paddle boat or an aircraft carrier, always wishes that it was two feet longer and two feet wider. Because those extra two feet give you the flexibility you need to do the things you didn’t think about when you bought the boat. I believe that the future CNO is not only going to want air superiority but also volume at sea. And I think that whatever this new carrier looks like in 2065, I predict that it’s going to be designed to provide air superiority and it’s going to provide for the best large volume of space at sea for us to have a wide range of flexibility.
Newport News is not just a shipyard: It’s a city, it’s a community, and it’s big part of this region. And your shipyard, it’s the heart and soul of that. Can you talk a little bit about the community that services your yard and brings to you the people who build your ships? And at the same time, what you do back for them over and above just putting out paychecks?
I guess that’s a lot of what we’ve been talking about. I’d say that it’s a parallel conversation with our shipyard down in Mississippi, where the shipyard in Pascagoula really is dominant. It’s the largest employer in the state of Mississippi and it’s a dominant economic presence on the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. And in fact, I think it’s one of the largest employers in Alabama in terms of the workforce that lives in Alabama and comes to our shipyard to work every day. This is true of shipyards and true of shipbuilders. As a business we are very concerned and engaged in the way that encourages the states where we do business to also invest in the workforce development pipelines. We engage in that pipeline from the governors’ office all the way down to the product that comes out of the pipeline. We believe that investment in that pipeline gives us the chance to create the kind of workforce that we need going forward. And the states believe that too, so we have very strong partnerships in both Mississippi and in Virginia for workforce development.
We’re also pretty large players in our communities. We contribute substantially to all of the things that make a community strong, like the United Way, the food banks, and other kinds of charitable organizations. But our people are invested in their communities as well. What you may not know is that shipbuilders are usually the first ones to leave their homes in the morning to go to work. They’re the last ones to come home at night, and they’re the ones who are coaching the little league teams on Saturday, and they are the ones who are running your churches on Sunday, and they show up at the PTA meetings on Tuesday night. The shipbuilders are the fabric and glue of the communities where they live. We’re very aware of that and we’re proud to be investing in that alongside building ships for national security.
This interview first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.