Austal is building a steel production line at its Mobile, AL shipyard as the company positions itself to compete for the Marine Corps' Light Amphibious Warship and Navy's follow-on contract for the FFG(X) Future Frigate program.
Larry Ryder, Austal's vice president of business development and external affairs, told Inside Defense the company is transitioning one of its aluminum production lines into a steel line as part of a $110 million shipyard construction project.
"Our intent is to continue to build aluminum ships, but changes in the security environment and changes in the Navy's requirements have driven us to take a look and determine it's time for us to add steel capability to what we do in the yard," Ryder said.
The company currently builds two aluminum ship programs -- the Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship and the Expeditionary Fast Transport ship.
Construction on the steel line is set to wrap up in April 2022, Ryder said. He said the steel production line opening will align with the Navy's timelines for the LAW and the Coast Guard's Offshore Patrol Cutter.
"The timing of the yard recapitalization is tied to being ready for those programs," he said. "In effect we are taking half of our production facility and converting half of it to steel, so we will have parallel capability to build steel ships and aluminum ships at the same."
The Marine Corps is planning to buy the LAW to be a new combat vessel to transport forces from shore to shore for a potential fight against China in the Pacific. In July, the service awarded industry studies to refine requirements ahead of design development to 15 companies, including Austal.
The service is planning for a fiscal year 2022 start of lead ship construction, and Maj. Gen. Tracy King, the Marine Corps' director of expeditionary warfare, told reporters in January he is "very excited" by the results of those industry studies.
As it competes for the LAW contract, Ryder said Austal has proven with the LCS and EPF that it is an efficient yard that can build ships on time and on budget.
"The size of that ship, it is right in the wheelhouse of what we are most efficient at producing," Ryder said. "We have a real solid design that meets the operational requirements of the Navy and Marine Corps."
The Navy a year ago awarded Wisconsin's Fincantieri Marinette Marine a $795 million contract to design and build its next-generation frigate, FFG(X). Austal was one of five companies to receive the advanced conceptual design contracts in 2018 as part of that competition.
The Navy's most recent shipbuilding plan, released in the waning days of the Trump administration, calls for the service to choose a "follow yard" for the Future Frigate program in FY-23 to increase production to three ships in FY-23 and four ships by FY-25.
Ryder said the Future Frigate is similar to the LCS in size and complexity.
"It's a little bigger and more complex, but it's going to be another small surface combatant, which is really what our yard is optimized to build," he said.
Austal will continue working on its aluminum programs, Ryder said. The shipbuilding plan calls for the service to build six more EPFs from FY-22 to FY-26.
Ryder said the company has more than enough capability to meet the requirement of two EPFs per year. The shipyard was built for four ships per year, with two EPFs and two LCS, he said. The company is approaching the tail end of the LCS program, he said.
"That opens up capacity," he said. "We'll be able to meet all the current requirements and future requirements for aluminum."