About 10 miles south of the long line of aircraft carriers along Newport News Shipbuilding’s piers sits another flat-topped US warship. But, while Newport News undertakes the glamorous work of building the navy’s biggest vessels from scratch, the facility in the Elizabeth River, by the naval port of Norfolk, plays a different role. The yard – owned by the US arm of the UK’s BAE Systems – carries out repairs and refurbishment work on naval vessels; in this case, a large deck amphibious assault ship, sitting in its floating Titan dry dock.
Such facilities can have far less confidence than Huntington Ingalls and other US contractors involved in large, long-term new procurement programmes about their future funding. Few of their programmes are allocated congressional funding several years ahead, as happens with aircraft carriers and other big, new items.
Nevertheless, Bill Clifford, president of BAE Systems Ship Repair, insists the yard is in “the sweet spot” to thrive in the new, tighter budgetary environment.
“The maintenance has to be done,” he says. “They could make a decision to slow down maintenance and upgrading, but you’re going to have to do the maintenance to keep those ships deployable, to keep those weapons systems up and running.”
Erin Moseley, president of BAE Systems Support Solutions, doubts there will be significant fleet reductions that would take away work opportunities.
“For the navy to make that kind of move – where they would just retire entire portions of their fleet – would require pretty significant review of what their mission is,” she says. “The question is, ‘How do we take the assets they already have and help them to extend their life?’”
The yard is nevertheless vulnerable to the kind of short-term funding crises that have been a regular feature of federal budget-making in recent years.
Mr Clifford also accepts that BAE will see some effects from sequestration, because of scheduled reductions in the navy’s fleet.
“There already are ships scheduled for decommissioning,” he says.
Yet such withdrawals and other cutbacks – which Mr Clifford says are already pushing some ships to spend longer at sea on each voyage – are themselves producing more work for his yard.
“Those missions are going up from six to seven months to nine months,” he says. “Those ships coming back require more maintenance.”