Tuesday December 14, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- The bid deadline for construction of coastal combat ships for the U.S. Navy has been extended from today until the end of the month, giving new life to a project that could generate 500 jobs at the General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems plant in Pittsfield over the next five years.

The computer manufacturing plant makes sophisticated electronic systems and employs nearly 1,200 people.

On Monday, the Navy announced that Australia's Austal Ltd. -- whose Austal USA unit is partnered with General Dynamics AIS -- and Lockheed Martin Corp. will extend a hold on their prices to do the jobs, in hopes that the U.S. Senate will authorize the Navy to double its order and have 10 more ships built before the Senate adjourns this month.

The Navy already has authorization to build 10 new ships. Austal/General Dynamics is competing with Lockheed/Marinette Marine Corp. for the right to build 10 more, although -- under proposed legislation backed by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and the Navy -- a favorable Senate vote would allow the Navy to award both the Austal/General Dynamics and Lockheed/
Marinette teams a 10-ship contract.

"The companies are willing to hold their prices so we can continue to work on this," said Capt. Cate Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Navy. ... "This extension does not allow the Navy to continue to work for the dual block buy authorization beyond Dec. 30, 2010."

The Navy estimates that each ship would cost $500 million. The Austal team would build the ships at the company's shipyard in Alabama, and the Lockheed team would build them at Marinette's plant in Wisconsin.

Kerry told The Eagle on Monday that he was pleased to see the bid extension.

"[Navy] Secretary [Ray] Mabus has made it clear that he wants to see this approach move forward, and my Senate colleagues and I also want to see both ships built. This contract can bring hundreds of desperately needed jobs to Pittsfield while providing our Navy with a state-of-the-art fleet and advanced combat control systems."

"That's a win-win if I've ever seen one," Kerry said.

Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto did not return The Eagle's phone calls on Monday, but he told The Boston Globe that new jobs at General Dynamics would be "just an incredible Christmas present for Pittsfield and the Berkshires."

Kerry told The Globe that the Pentagon would save money by placing a larger order of ships. The Navy also said a double order provided by two manufacturing teams would give it more ships at a faster rate while keeping the shipbuilding industry running and creating jobs.

General Dynamics spokesman Kendell Pease said the Pittsfield plant alone could see 500 or more jobs created during the five-year length of the proposed contracts.

"All those jobs won't be there on the first day after the contract is signed," Pease said. "But the request is two ships a year for five years, so it adds up. And these are high-tech, well-paying jobs.

Both the Austal-General Dynamics team and the Lockheed-Marinette team have designed and built a ship, with two more ships -- one of each type -- under construction.

The ships, like the Austal-General Dynamic's USS Independence, are made to be fast, highly maneuverable and geared to supporting mine detection/elimination, anti-submarine warfare, and surface warfare, particularly against small surface crafts.

Pease said about 130 employees from the Pittsfield plant worked on the first ship.

Critics of the proposed dual block buy plan say it's inefficient to build, continue to purchase and train people to use two sets of differently designed combat ships.

Reports released last week from the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office also indicated that the dual buy plan may be more costly than selecting one team. Reports also said the ships already made by the companies have yet to undergo and pass a comprehensive assessment.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com
(413) 496-6239