Warships do not just spring to life: They have to be designed and built for the crews that will sail them into harm’s way. The process of constructing ships like USS New York (LPD 21) often takes decades to complete, and represents one of the most high-risk commercial ventures available to those with ambition and a desire to make money. Military shipbuilding is one of the last great heavy industries left in America, which used to lead the world in such ventures. So someone doing it well and making money in the process is cause for celebration among investors as well as interest among politicians and competitors.
Today, only a handful of American companies dare to compete in this business, and the unqualified leader is Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding (NGSB). An amalgam of legacy shipbuilding enterprises, including Newport News Shipbuilding, Litton Ingalls, and Avondale Shipbuilding among others, NGSB is the product of a massive industrial consolidation that only today is being fully integrated. Exclusive builders of aircraft carriers and amphibious ships for the U.S. Navy, they also build nuclear submarines and guided missile destroyers. Employing 40,000 workers in four main yards, doing $5.5 billion in yearly business, NGSB is the largest private employer in states like Virginia and Mississippi.
Mike Petters, the president of NGSB, runs this massive enterprise. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and officer in nuclear submarines, 48-year-old Petters runs the single largest shipbuilding concern in the Western Hemisphere. What follows are his thoughts on USS New York, NGSB, the shipbuilding business, and the special folks he chooses to associate with: shipbuilders.
John D. Gresham – You’ve been building these things (warships) for a while, haven’t you?
Mike Petters – [Laughs] I’m starting to get long in the tooth! I’ve been building ships at Newport News and for Northrop Grumman for over 20 years, and I’ve been associated with shipbuilding and ships and shipyards for over 25 years.
You’ve worked on aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and all sorts of other warships. What is it you see in the San Antonio- class amphibious transport dock ships that makes them unique, both in terms of their construction and capabilities?
My full introduction to this ship, the San Antonio-class (LPD 17) amphibious transport dock ship, was about a year and a half ago when we decided to integrate the business. I think one of the things that sets warships apart from all other kinds of vessels is that they are typically very focused in their missions, and their designs are very specific to what they set out to accomplish. I don’t think that is different in this class of ships, the LPDs, versus the nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier designs we produce.
In this case, they support our expeditionary Navy and carry Marines and put them ashore. What we’ve found in the process of building these ships is that they have a lot of flexibility and capability that has been called on lately by the U.S. Navy.
What are your general impressions of the LPD 17-class ships, and the New York in particular?
The whole LPD 17 class is a pretty capable design. What I think is different about the New York from earlier ships of the class is the emotion that’s attached to it. We have steel from the remains of the World Trade Center in the bow, and the ship is being built at our yard in New Orleans. There is a definite connection between the cities of New York and New Orleans over the things that have happened to both places in the past few years. The cities have mutually supported each other, and for me, in terms of all of the shipbuilding experiences I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a few – this one has a lot more emotion tied up into it by the communities involved. The City of New York and the City of New Orleans are attached to this ship, and they’re attached to each other. I think that that’s going to create a strength in the crew that will serve it well for decades.
I think the Navy will find many uses for these ships that they haven’t even thought of yet. The Chief of Naval Operations [CNO], Adm. Gary Roughhead, has talked about this aboard the USS Nashville [LPD 13] – I think it was off the coast of Africa – a ship with a well deck and air operations capability for helicopters. They’re able to provide support to our allies in terms of training, repair, support … all those kinds of things. And the reason is because they have “volume at sea.” They have volume, both internal and external, that gives them capacity and capability. They have flight and cargo stowage decks, and space at sea to do a variety of things.
Now when you have volume at sea, you have well deck capabilities for landing craft and small boats, flight-deck capabilities for helicopters and UAVs, and hospital capabilities. And when you have room and facilities on a ship for an embarked Marine detachment, you can use that space for something else if you need to. I think that kind of flexibility is something that we’re only just beginning to explore, in terms of missions.