Sometime this summer an anonymous panel of Navy weapons experts will decide the economic future of a struggling town in rural northeastern Wisconsin. Marinette, Wisconsin is the home of the shipyard building the Lockheed Martin version of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a multi-mission warship conceived to make the U.S. Navy more effective in waters close to hostile shores. LCS is cheaper and faster than any other warship in the current fleet, hosting specialized mission modules that are swapped out depending on whether the vessel will be engaged in anti-surface, anti-submarine, or anti-mine warfare. I toured the shipyard on Wednesday and “small” is not the first adjective that comes to mind when you’re standing next to a Littoral Combat Ship, but the core crew consists of only 40 sailors — which is a small fraction of the hundreds of personnel aboard Navy destroyers and cruisers.
For Marinette, Wisconsin, though, the big question isn’t how the ship will operate but where it will be built. In July or August, a Navy source-selection board will decide whether to buy the Lockheed Martin vessel or a radically different design developed by General Dynamics and an Australian company called Austal. The GD design is an aluminum trimaran unlike any other warship currently in service around the world. Lockheed’s vessel is a steel “monohull” that looks a lot more like the kind of warship navies are accustomed to buying — although, like GD’s ship, it can outrun any other vessel in the fleet. The two ships are so different that there’s a case to be made for buying both, but the Navy says its can’t afford that option, so it will conduct a “down-select” this summer to decide which version will one day provide a sixth of all the ships in the U.S. fleet.
Picking a winning design means picking a winning shipyard, and the difference between the rival warships is mirrored by the difference between the competing shipyards. Marinette Marine is a world away from Mobile, Alabama where GD and Austal would build their vessel. The weather around Mobile is hot and humid much of the year, and the economy is sufficiently vigorous that workforce turnover at the yard is a chronic problem. Conditions at Marinette are the exact opposite: the temperature doesn’t make it above freezing on an average of 158 days during the year, and the local economy is similarly frozen, with unemployment exceeding 20% in some nearby jurisdictions. The biggest challenge Marinette Marine faces from the weather is that once the winter freeze settles in on the Great Lakes, its ships can’t get to the sea until the spring thaw commences. The big weather problem in Mobile is hurricanes, which can be so devastating that shipyards take years to recover (some people say the nearby Ingalls Shipyard still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005).
Hurricanes potentially have a big secondary impact on productivity at the Mobile shipyard, because rebuilding can create job opportunities that tempt skilled workers to leave their shipyard jobs. Wisconsin’s depressed northeast wishes it had that kind of economic vitality. Downtown Marinette is nearly deserted, and there aren’t many alternatives to working at the shipyard. But precisely for that reason, people really value their jobs at the shipyard and there is no problem with turnover. A similar situation exists at Bath Iron Works in Maine, the General Dynamics shipyard that the Navy considers to be its best-run, most productive shipbuilder. The Navy has rewarded Bath for its productivity with a steady stream of work on new surface combatants, but there’s no way of knowing whether Marinette will be similarly benefited in the LCS competition because that depends on which design the Navy decides it likes best. So the future of Marinette, Wisconsin is very much on the line in this summer’s down-select, and the Navy’s decision will deeply affect the lives of people who live a thousand miles from the sea.
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