Add Another Building Block to the John F. Kennedy Carrier

The island structure of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) is lifted into place at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo: U.S. Navy, courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding.)
The island structure of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) is lifted into place at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo: U.S. Navy, courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding.)

The future USS John F. Kennedy added 932 metric tons to its fighting weight Thursday as Newport News Shipbuilding marked a construction milestone for the next-generation aircraft carrier.

Under the watchful eyes of shipbuilders, a crane maneuvered Kennedy's lower stern into the dry dock, where the nuclear-powered behemoth is being assembled. It fit like a giant building block and brought the ship one step closer to its scheduled launch in 2020.

This "superlift," in shipyard parlance, consisted of about 30 pieces joined together. It included the ship's rudders, tanks, steering gear rooms and electrical power distribution rooms.

It was a big day for the yard -- the lift brought the Kennedy to 50 percent structural completion -- but shipyard leaders saw it as part of a larger story about keeping costs under control.

The Newport News yard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is working under a cost cap of about $11.4 billion for the Kennedy. To meet it, the Navy's plan calls for a reduction in labor hours by 18 percent. That is unprecedented in 50 years of aircraft carrier construction, according to the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog.

Shipyard executives say they can meet this goal because they're changing how the Kennedy is being built compared with the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford, which recently left the yard and will be commissioned July 22 at Naval Station Norfolk.

The idea is to perform less work in the dry dock, where tight spaces limit efficiency, and shift more work to the yard's shops and open spaces. That translates into fewer superlifts over the life of a construction schedule, which saves time and money, but those superlifts will be more substantial.

Mike Butler, program manager, said the changes between Ford and Kennedy are eye-opening. Newport News began building the Ford before the design was complete. With the Kennedy, they have a proven design in hand that allows for more predictability.

In one case, what required 19 lifts on the Ford required a single lift for the Kennedy, Butler said. The carrier is on track to be completed with 445 lifts, which is 51 fewer than Ford and 149 fewer than USS George H.W. Bush, the last Nimitz-class carrier.

"We're building (Kennedy) in a completely different way," Butler said, adding that shipbuilders compiled 60,000 lessons learned from Ford and translated that into several thousand strategy changes.

A GAO report released last week noted the shipyard's changes in sequence and strategy but called the plan "untested." It concluded that the Navy's estimate of just under $11.4 billion for the Kennedy wasn't reliable.

Butler acknowledged the hurdle, but he said the shipyard is clearing it.

"We have a cost challenge on this carrier that's unprecedented," he said. "Right now, with the changes we've made, the focus we have on affordability, we're achieving that goal."

Lee Murphy, the Kennedy's construction superintendent, is marking his 41st year at the Newport News shipyard. He's been involved with aircraft carrier construction since the early days of the Nimitz class program.

Typically, aircraft carrier construction is driven by schedule, he said.

Though timing remains important on the Kennedy, Murphy said, "This is the first ship where cost is the gospel."

Unlike the $12.9 billion Ford, where costs grew nearly 23 percent, Huntington Ingalls is building the Kennedy on fixed price contracts. That's exactly what it sounds like, Murphy said.

If a part is $10, "then it's $10," he said. "There's no talking about it."

Despite concern over cost, key members of Congress and President Donald Trump are bullish on aircraft carriers. As part of a plan to go from 276 ships to 355 ships overall, Trump and the Navy want a 12-carrier fleet, up from 11.

As if to punctuate that point, the House Armed Services Committee this week released a 2018 defense authorization bill that would require the Navy to maintain a 12-carrier fleet once the Kennedy is commissioned, around 2023.

And just after the 932-metric-ton building block settled into place Thursday in Newport News, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, convened a news conference in Washington to announce he was pushing legislation aimed at maintaining a 355-ship fleet.

Wittman was joined by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss, the home state of Newport News' sister shipyard, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss.

"Building up our fleet," Wittman said, "is a national project and should be a source of national pride."

This article is written by Hugh Lessig from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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