Report: Zumwalt 'Teething Problems' Affecting BIW's Competitiveness

Jul 20, 2015

BATH, Maine - A report published by the U.S. Naval Institute's news service says delays in the Zumwalt destroyer program have led to a bottleneck in production at Bath Iron Works, something which is affecting the yard's ability to remain competitive in the pursuit of other Navy ship-building programs.

Sam LaGrone, editor of the news service, says BIW has become less competitive over the last few years. "The numbers pretty much speak for themselves."

In 2011, LaGrone says, BIW bested its rival shipyard run by Huntingon Ingalls in Pascagoula, Mississippi in the bid to construct three DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the U.S. Navy. BIW's price-per-hull bid was nearly $20 million cheaper than what the Pascagoula yard could offer.

Two years later, it's a different story. BIW's price-per-hull had risen by more than $30 million, while Huntingon Ingalls' had fallen. LaGrone says it's an unusual turn in the Navy shipbuilding world.

"Usually if you have a multi-year ship construction you'll know well in advance what the long lead materials are going to be," he says. "You can be a little bit more competitive as far as buying in bulk and buying your materials in bulk, and also you have what they call a learning curve with the ships."

And the stakes are high. The Mississippi shipyard emerged the clear winner in a $6 billion multi-year shipbuilding deal, winning contracts for five out of the nine Arleigh Burke destroyers in 2013.

One factor contributing to the problems at BIW, says LaGrone, is connected to the $22 billion contract awarded six years ago to build three "next generation" Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers, known as DDG-1000s. The first ship is due for completion by the end of the year, several months behind its original schedule.

LaGrone says the ship's integrated power system. completely unique to the Zumwalt, is designed to give ships more flexibility and more efficiency, but "the problem is the system is completely complex, and it's so new and it's so complicated that there's been some teething problems."

And those teething problems appear to have impacted the workflow of the shipyard, says LaGrone. On top of that, he says, he's heard concerns raised about a shortage of certain skilled workers. "One thing from the people that we've talked to that's come up again and again is electricians, and the lack of them in the yard in general, has been a deciding factor for delays in both lines of ships."

He points to the fact that the two DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers under construction at the yard - the Thomas Hudner and the Rafael Peralta - are experiencing delays of five months and seven months, respectively.

The USS Arleigh Burke, a DDG-51 class ship, underway in the Mediterranean Sea in 2003.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

LaGrone says neither the Navy nor BIW specifically addressed the Arleigh Burke delays when he contacted them. However, both issued statements that pledged a commitment to increased efficiency in the construction of both the DDG-1000 and DDG-51 lines.

Most members of Maine's congressional delegation responded to the recent article by expressing their faith in the BIW workforce. In a joint statement, Sens. Angus King, an independent, and Republican Susan Collins, admitted there are always technological challenges in building a first-of-its kind ship like the Zumwalt.

But they go on to say "the men and women of BIW have a long history of designing, building, and supporting the most advanced destroyers in the world," and that they're confident in their continued ability to do so.

Second District Congressman Bruce Poliquin - a Republican - issued a similar statement. First District Democrat Chellie Pingree declined to provide comment.
The full statement from Sens. Collins and King:

"There are always challenges in building a first-of-its-class ship, particularly one with the cutting-edge technologies of the Zumwalt.  The innovative integrated electric propulsion system is just one example of  the new technologies on this ship, which require extensive testing before delivery. The men and women of BIW have a long history of designing, building, and supporting the most advanced destroyers in the world.  We are confident that with the full support of the Navy and General Dynamics, their dedication will bring this complex, technological marvel to the fleet, and that the Navy will really appreciate the advanced capabilities of this ship.”

The full statement from 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin:

"Maine is home to the hardest-working and most dedicated shipbuilders in the country. With their experience and shipbuilding knowledge, Bath Iron Works employees are currently building the most advanced naval ship the world has ever seen. I’m confident that BIW will get the job done in a timely manner.”