Building New USN Ships: How About Leveraging US-Asian Alliances?


2013-04-01 By Robbin Laird and Murielle Delaporte

Recently, we attended a christening of a new class of US Navy ships called the Mobile Landing Platform.

As we looked at the ship from San Diego Harbor, the big gaping hole in the middle is where the change has come: The ship is built on the foundation of an oil tanker which NASSCO built for British Petroleum, but instead of tanks you have open space for loading and offloading at sea.

The ship is designed to have a mix and match functionality for support to the fleet. Modules will be developed to optimize it for particular missions.

For example, the first module to be developed will the Montford Point to simultaneously load three assault hovercraft (called LCACs, short for Landing Craft, Air Cushion).

But the ship can be configured to support disaster relief, such as the Japanese tsunami; to support assault operations, with many vehicles on board; or as a floating support system for aviation, ground forces, or other naval forces, for example small minesweeping craft. It can clearly function as support for higher intensity assault operations or a more sustained operational tempo.

While in San Diego and preparing for the christening ceremony on March 2, 2013, we had a chance to talk with Fred Harris, CEO of NASSCO, the shipbuilder for the USNS Montford Point.


The USNS Montford Point viewed from the Harbor. Credit: Second Line of Defense. 

A key aspect of the conversation revolved around the role of South Korean shipbuilders in working with NASSCO to deliver the ship on time and under budget,

Frankly, we were not anticipating this part of the story so pursed this with Harris during the interview.

Harris provided several insights regarding the relationship with South Korea and the contribution of South Korea and Japan to improved US shipbuilding.  Harris highlighted the processes followed by the Asian yards, and their commitment to a tight planning and design process prior to building any ship.

He told a story about a meeting which he had in South Korea with a US Congressman in attendance.  The shipbuilder was asked how many ships he had built that year and his answer was something on the order of more than 270.  The Congressman asked the shipbuilder:  How did you get that good?

The South Korean shipbuilder paused and then answered:  “We learned from the US during World War II in building the Liberty Ships as manufactured products.  We started there and have been working to improve on that model.”

Harris has significant experience with the Asian yards, which of course, is crucial in having the kind of relationships which Asians value and upon which one might build trust and confidence.

As Harris put it:

There are Koreans who still feel a real debt of gratitude towards the U.S.  And if you’re willing to take your hat in your hand and walk into a Korean shipyard and say I don’t know.  Can you help me with this?  In the beginning, they’ll want to try you out a bit and see if you’re serious.  But once they understand you are, they will work effectively with you.” 

There is almost a mutual bond of shipbuilders that if you’re really talking about learning, and trying to learn, most shipbuilders want to share with you. 

According to Harris, South Korean yards have contributed significantly to the design and production of the ship.  One key example he gave was with regard to a technology transfer from South Korea to the US.

The deck is 1 ¾ inches of steel.  Relying on US methods, we would need multiple passes to build this steel plate on the deck.  We called Hyundai on the phone and said: what do you do?  One pass.  Will you share that with us?  Yes. We’ll share it with you.  

They shared it all with us, and it’s a process that we have here where you put powdered metal in the joint, it’s actually broken up pieces of weld material.  And you autonomously weld, and you fuse all that together.  And you build a crown when you put that material in.  And it really is fantastic.  

The process lead to very little, if any, weld rejects.  The issue with one pass for us was we were seeing some weld reject.  And we don’t want weld reject.  But the Koreans, used a two-pass system.  And their joint design was very different than our joint design.  We quickly qualified the joint design to the USN spec requirements. 

Harris highlighted throughout the interview the importance of the partnership for improving the design and manufacturing process and making it a more exacting effort to drive out cost and to enhance manufacturing performance.

“The partnership helps me leapfrog me 10-15 years worth of technology in a short period of time. We will do everything we can to drive every hours worth of cost out of the ship.”

If one is concerned about competing in the Pacific with the Chinese, then working more effectively with our Japanese and South Korean allies is a good thing. And here the first of its class has that cooperation built in.

The interview and the project also suggests that working with South Korea and Japan in building a new generation of military vessels may make a great deal of sense.  As the allies shape a need for ships and more effective ships, driving down cost for the kinds of ships one might want makes a great deal of sense.

In the United States, the Littoral Combat Ship has distorted the conversation about shipbuilding.  The LCS has been largely justified on the grounds that you can build many of them because they cost less.

A better approach would be to identify the ships you need and drive down their costs with the kind of global partnerships, which Harris discussed. 

Among the most useful of ships are small destroyers, MSC ships, and amphibious ships.

Why not shape a competition to determine the most effective designs, which could be produced in US yards or co-produced in Asian yards?

The USN-USMC and USCG team needs ships; they won’t get them with current shipbuilding approaches, and the surging of a ship defined by cost, and not needed capabilities.