USCG National Security Cutters: Bad News, Good News
Sept 11/07 saw Northrop Grumman celebrate some milestones for its National Security Cutter program. The release arrived shortly on the heels of a Defense News Report that notes some of the process improvements in use within the program, but puts the total cost of the first ship at $641 million.
First-of-class ships are often more expensive, post 9/11 changes did add 1,000 of the final design’s 4,300 tons, and the NSC program compares favorably in many respects with past efforts like the AEGIS DDG-51 destroyers and CG-47 cruisers that now form the core of the US Navy. Even so, that $641 million price tag begins to place the Legend Class cutters in the same realm as the new Fridtjof Nansen Class AEGIS air defense frigates that form the high end core of Norway’s navy. Price tags often decline as more ships are built, but there are also cases like the LPD-17 San Antonio Class, whose $1.7 billion cost and 100% overrun on the first ship appear to have perpetuated throughout the build cycle.
Which example will this ship class follow? DID looks at the recent milestones and process improvements underway, in order to begin to answer this question…
Northrop Grumman recently announced the completion of a pair of construction-related milestones for the US Coast Guard’s flagship National Security Cutter program. On Bertholf [WMSL 750], which stands at 90% complete, the two main propulsion diesel engines completed a successful light-off. Following this accomplishment, the stern assembly was erected onto Waesche [WMSL 751], which now stands at 33% complete. The next scheduled events for Waesche include the erection of the forward and aft superstructure grand blocks, followed by the upper bow unit. Only 5 out of 32 ‘lifts’ remain to complete the modular structure. NGC release.
These accomplishments represent a vast amount of hard work by engineers and shipbuilders, and deserve to be celebrated. Nevertheless, NGC is going to have to find ways to improve performance substantially in order to deliver these cutters at a price the Coast Guard can afford. Which is why DID’s coverage of process improvements underway, and the recent Defense News’ article, tell us important things about the program’s future.
The Defense News report mentions both the Bertholf’s expected delivery date, and its final cost. The new delivery date is Feb 26/08; it was set as part of the major program agreement with the Coast Guard announced Aug 8/07. The contract also fixed the total price for the new ship at $641 million – a figure that includes $441 million to build the ship, plus government-furnished equipment including weapons, and future structural improvements and modifications.
How likely is it that this will change for subsequent ships of class? A significant chunk of the answer will be determined by the expected extent and success of future construction improvements.
Northrop began cutting steel on the WMSL 750 Bertholf in September 2004, which means 42 months of construction by the time the ship is delivered in late February 2008. The company expects to build WMSL 751 Waesche in 38 months, and to build NSC 3/ WMSL 752 in just 32 months – a 24% time savings. DID’s FOCUS article covering the Bertholf Class cutters notes the benefits of building WMSL 750 & 751 side by side using the same team. It’s one reason jobs like installing GE’s LM2500 gas turbine, accompanying diesel engines, and propeller shafts took 8 days on Bertholf, but just 1.5 days on Waesche.
The old way of building the ship was to build it all at once, with the wiring and systems added according to their own schedule. The modern practice of building ships in pre-equipped sections called ‘blocks’ changed all that for the better, as sections weighing hundreds or even thousands of tons are now lifted into place by huge cranes with many of their important systems already installed. The more finished each block can be, the fewer difficulties one faces in turning the hull into a functioning ship. Which translates into money savings from faster installations, less re-work when things have to be ripped out in order to complete critical installs, etc.
WMSL 751 is looking to leverage much more extensive block outfitting, with far more of the potentially troublesome systems like insulation, piping, and electrical added before blocks are lifted by huge cranes and joined to the ship. The Bertholf is reportedly made up of 32 ‘lift blocks,’ while WMSL 751 aims to finish in 29 lifts. They’re hoping to require just 16 lift blocks for the yet-to-be-named WMSL 752, and are studying further possible reductions beyond that. Making required structural modifications part of future Bertholf Class cutters, rather than expensive post-construction refits, will also help lower costs.
Those kinds of improvements are more than feel-good stories. They will be absolutely necessary in order for the NSC build-out to become a successful program, and begin to put the overall Deepwater Coast Guard modernization program back on track.
- DID FOCUS Article – The USCG’s National Security Cutters