Ships deal a go

Posted

Thursday December 23, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems expects to add 500 or more jobs at its Pittsfield plant over the next five years to handle a U.S. Navy contract for 10 specialized combat ships.

"This is a landmark day for the city of Pittsfield. I could not be happier," Mayor James M. Ruberto told The Eagle on Wednesday. "The city is a beneficiary for having General Dynamics in it."

"It's as about as good economic news as we could have wished for, and it's real," said state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.

The measure, included in a budget bill that keeps the federal government running until March 4, was passed by Congress late Tuesday. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed it.

The bill's passage allows the U.S. Navy to double its request for littoral combat ships and divide the 20-vessel, $5 billion order between two contractors. One is Australia's Austal Ltd.'s U.S. unit which is partnered with General Dynamics AIS. The other, Wisconsin-based Lockheed Martin Corp., is partnered with Marinette Marine Corp.

The Austal-General Dynamics partnership has already built one full ship under a previous contract. For that ship, General Dynamics employed 130 people from the Pittsfield plant to design the ship's infrastructure and systems. While General Dynamics will carry out its engineering work for the ships here in Pittsfield, an Austal shipyard in Mobile, Ala., will actually construct the ships.

A General Dynamics spokesperson has described the 500 or more jobs needed in Pittsfield to fill the U.S. Navy contract as "high-tech, well-paying."

Littoral (pronounced literal) combat ships are relatively smaller than other Navy vessels. Considered the Jet Ski of ships, they are fast, highly maneuverable, and can go from zero to 50 knots in minutes. They're designed for missions like mine detection and elimination, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare against things like seafaring drug transactions and pirates. The ships also navigate coastal waters well because of their unique hull design.

The Navy estimates that each ship will cost $500 million to build. Ultimately, the Navy wants to accrue a fleet of 55 ships.

The next step is a process of formalities. Now with federal approval, the Navy has to formally award the deal to the contractors who can then present work awards to subcontractors.

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Mike Tweed-Kent, vice president and general manager of the Mission Integration Systems Division at General Dynamics AIS, called Wednesday a "a crucial step in the process."

In a statement, Tweed-Kent thanked U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and U.S. Rep. Olver in ensuring that the littoral combat ships, or LCS, program language made its way into the temporary budget bill and on to the president's desk.

"Throughout this process, Gov. [Deval] Patrick, Sen. [Benjamin] Downing and Mayor Ruberto have also continually given their unwavering support to see this process from start to finish," he said.

"When jobs come and go, it can hollow out a community and we all worked our tails off to make sure that didn't happen," said U.S. Sen. John Kerry said in a statement. "We've been on pins and needles to see if we were successful and it ended up better than we could have hoped."

Whether the U.S. Navy would get the go-ahead from Congress was a nailbiter. Earlier this month, the LCS program was on the precipice because the contractors' initial fixed-cost bids were set to expire on Dec. 14, and the Senate still had not voted to approve Navy spending for the project. But the contractors moved to extend their bids to Dec. 30 in hopes that Congress would pass the bill before it adjourned for the year.

Critics of the LCS program, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have questioned the Navy's quest to double the ship order to 20, especially since the two existing ships, each of a different design, have not undergone a comprehensive performance evaluation.

But Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said "both designs provide the capabilities our Navy needs, and each offers unique features that will provide fleet commanders with a high level of flexibility in employing these ships. This is good for the Navy, shipbuilders and taxpayers."

Navy officials have told lawmakers it would cost less to build 20 LCSs now than to build 10 now and 10 later, and argued that the proposed contract would create more jobs and help get more ships into the water at a faster rate than if it awarded a single contract. The deal also allows the Navy to order 20 for the cost of 19.

"This is very good news for the city of Pittsfield and not only because of the positions General Dynamics will create but the stability it will provide for employees currently working there," said Pittsfield City Councilor Kevin Sherman, chairman of the council's subcommittee for Community and Economic Development.

"There is opportunity for a big-time ripple effect from housing purchases by transplants to the area, dining sales, retail sales and more," Sherman said. "What's good for Pittsfield is also good to the Berkshires."

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


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