NORFOLK, Va. – America’s only nuclear aircraft carrier shipyard is running out of room.
At HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding, there is a combination of 20 aircraft carriers and submarines under construction or under repair with 25,000 shipbuilders working over 550 acres.
It’s the greatest amount of work the yard has seen in 40 years, Les Smith, vice president of carrier construction at Newport News, told USNI News on Monday. Capital improvements in the yard to build its share of the Columbia-class ballistic nuclear missile submarine program have squeezed space for the facilities on the banks of the James River.
Traditionally, Newport News’ business has been divided roughly into thirds: new nuclear carrier construction, mid-life upgrade and refueling work for nuclear construction, Virginia and Columbia-class submarine construction. That workload has been expanded to include overflow repair for nuclear attack submarines from the Navy’s public shipyards.
To alleviate some of the strain, the yard is setting up a satellite shop on leased land in Norfolk to build sections of aircraft carriers to be shipped to the yard for final assembly.
The work will be done at a facility owned by Fairlead, a private shipbuilder and ship repair business based in Hampton Roads.
“We saw opportunities a few years ago when we recognized that the workload was going to be bigger than what Newport News currently had as their backlog grew,” Fairlead CEO Jerry Miller told USNI News Monday at Fairlead yard on Lambert’s Point at the Elizabeth River, southeast of Newport News Shipbuilding.
The company invested in building up its Norfolk facility and, in turn, received some of the shipbuilding industrial base funds from the government.
“The government has been very supportive in what they call the shipbuilding industrial base fund and once we’ve made the investment in facilities and they’ll help us outfit those facilities,” Miller said.
“They’ve been very helpful, providing material handling equipment, cranes, some electrical upgrades that are in their yard, so a lot of upgrades in the yard once we made the investment into the facilities… We put a lot of our own capital into the project long before the government gave us any money.”
For the last two months, the Fairlead site in Norfolk has played host to work for aircraft carriers being built in Newport News. Fairlead’s other facilities in the region have been doing other carrier work since 2020, Fairlead President Fred Pasquine told USNI News.
The facility has 20 Newport News workers and will eventually grow to 150 by next year. Newport’s Smith said that the site in Norfolk would entice workers who avoid the traffic jams caused by backups on the bridge tunnels.
On Monday, a crew at the facility lofted and flipped a more than four-ton piece of steel that will become part of the bow of the third Ford-class carrier – Enterprise (CVN-80). Overall, the company is set to build 10 percent of the tonnage of Enterprise, Pasquine said.
Moving any work out of the two U.S. nuclear shipbuilding yards – Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat in Connecticut – is one of the tools the Navy is encouraging industry to use to knock down the backlog of work on the submarine side. Other smaller yards, like Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., are doing other pieces of work like the aluminum aircraft elevators for Enterprise.
A Navy Virginia-class submarine new construction estimate from earlier this year pegged the backlog at more than 400 months behind, USNI News previously reported.
While creating the HII footprint at Fairlane’s facility in Norfolk will have a direct effect on the carrier program, it also frees up space and resources for submarine construction in Norfolk, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, program executive officer for Aircraft Carriers, told USNI News Monday.
“This is actually not just about aircraft carriers, it is definitely also about submarines, so anything that we’re able to do in terms of workers in terms of space, in terms of capacity to move aircraft carrier work out is also helping HII increase their capacity for not only aircraft carriers but also for submarines,” he said.
“When we look at the challenge, we’ve got to do things differently in terms of capacity. I would say the submariners are very enthusiastic about it.”
Moton said the establishment of the Newport News Shipbuilding outpost in Norfolk is in part an acknowledgement of the national labor outlook.
“We have challenges to the industrial base on a macro level for the country right now,” Moton said.
“We’re taking a comprehensive approach for really all our programs but particularly for carriers, that nuclear industrial base and both labor and material labor is a hard challenge. And so yes, it’s a HII’s responsibility to be able to do that to build for us but we recognize that it’s a national level issue.”