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January 2013

A Class By Itself
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The Navy Bets Big on a New Design;
IBEW Members Already Winners

On Oct. 20, a champagne bottle was the first opponent to lose a battle with the USS America, the newest warship in the U.S. Navy.

Thousands of people, including members of Pascagoula, Miss., Local 733, were on hand for the christening of the fourth ship to be named America since 1865. This America is the first of a new class of amphibious assault ships designed to carry ashore an invading force of U.S. Marines.

For the men and women who build American warships, the USS America is the largest non-nuclear surface vessel in the Navy to abandon steam power. Instead it will use a combination of jet turbines and diesel generators to power the ship and turn the propellers.

"These new designs mean more electricity and more work for electricians. We do the propulsion and controls, and it's our guys doing power generation. In these new, advanced ships, all the command control is not mechanical but electrical," Local 733 Business Manager Jim Couch said. "Long term, it's good for us."

The Navy's $2.4 Billion Wager

For the Navy, the USS America is a $2.4 billion experiment that represents a handful of bets about the nature of future wars and the weapons that fight it.

The highest-stakes bet is that beach invasions are a thing of the past. Paul Revere was broadly right when he broke it down: invasions were either coming by land or by sea. From the Greeks at Troy to Ike at Normandy, when two countries went to war, if an invasion force couldn't get there on dry land, then they would be stepping off a boat deck to a beach.

Amphibious invasions are often long remembered as well or better than their war: Gallipoli, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Normandy and Inchon. As often as not, they are remembered because of the toll they take. Beach invasions are vicious, bloody and the U.S. Navy is building the USS America to make them obsolete.

Unlike every other U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship afloat, there will be no waves of landing craft unleashed from America. It doesn't carry them on board and has no way to launch them. Every other similar ship has a well deck, a floodable dock hidden behind massive doors in the stern of the ship, like a boat ramp at a marina. Marines invading from the USS America will fly in, sometimes far in, ferried by the most advanced aircraft in the American arsenal: troop transports that can take off from ships like helicopters and fly like planes and fighter jets that can launch from small runways and land like helicopters.

The space that would have held hovercraft holds millions of gallons of jet fuel. The space that would have held the well deck holds enormous aircraft repair bays.

Those aircraft are bet number two. There is a chance that there won't be a fighter jet to fly off this mini-aircraft carrier. The Navy, Marines and Air Force all agreed to use the same basic design for fighter jets, the joint tactical fighter, or F-35. Problems, cost overruns and lengthy delays almost canceled the F-35B program, though Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did restore it to full funding in 2012.

The IBEW's Win

Removing the steam propulsion system from the ship is the third bet, with the most on the line for IBEW shipbuilders. No steam means wires will carry power around the ship, not pipes. Boilers are replaced by a two-part system of diesel generators for low speed operations and twin jet turbines for operation at high speeds, almost like a hybrid car. Most of the time, the ship will cruise along at about 10 knots, using only energy generated by two 4,000-kilowatt diesel generators. When more speed is needed, two gas turbine engines that put out 35,000 horsepower come on line, boosting top speed above 20 knots.

Getting those systems installed and synchronized is the responsibility of IBEW craftsmen. Dreaming up new uses for all those electrons is the job of naval planners. They have been busy finding new things for IBEW members to install.

For example, the new navigation and command and control system is distributed around the ship. Weapons and damage control, even maneuvers can be controlled from multiple locations on board. Redundant systems need more connections and more power and result in a more resilient warship. All told, there is more than 5,196,000 feet of fiber optic cable threading through the 844-foot long ship.

"That's been five years of work for 700 members," Couch said.

Where the Future is Built

The Ingalls Shipyard is a 600-acre factory for everything from the most advanced combat ships, to oil rigs to rail cars. Seventy-six surface warships have sailed out of the shipyard into the Gulf of Mexico since 1976. The craftsmen at Ingalls accomplished extraordinary things on this job. For example, when the America's 29,700-ton hull was moved from "the hill" — where the large components of the ship are welded together — to the dry dock, it was the heaviest man-made object ever moved over land, according to the Ingalls shipyard.

Marine journeyman electrician Joey Couch, brother of the business manager, is a fiber optic cable specialist who worked on USS America. Ship designers called for an innovative system to route the hundreds of miles of cable around the ship. Couch and others used a one-and-a-quarter inch pipe with seven internal tubes to house and route the extensive wiring. Picture plastic conduit with straws inside.

The conduit is installed throughout the ship, jumping from junction box to junction box, splitting off and connecting a vast network. The seven internal tubes create paths that can connect two places in a single room or run the length and height of the ship, twisting and bending like bobsled runs. Once a path is finished, instead of pulling cable through, Couch sends the fiber optic cable to its destination on a stream of air.

"Before we send it out, we blow a steel bb through the pipe to make sure there are no obstructions, and to make sure it is going where we want it to," said Couch.

It reduces the amount of conduit needed, makes repairs easier and lets the Navy take advantage of lighter weight cable. It isn't new, but this is the largest ship to use this system.

Couch said that the absence of the large well deck from the ship might mean a lot for the Navy, but for shipbuilders it meant only one thing, "Ladders. A lot more up and down, up and down."

"The history of the IBEW at the Ingalls shipyard is wrapped up in these amphibious assault ships," said Government Employees Department Director William "Chico" McGill, who got his start working on the first Tarawa-class ship, the USS Tarawa, in the late 1960s. "All the love and all the pride of our craftsmen is in every one of these ships."

At its peak in the late 1970s, approximately 25,000 men and women came to work every day at Ingalls. Though that number is down near 11,000 today, Ingalls is still the largest private employer in the state of Mississippi. And times are good.

Ingalls has contracts worth $16 billion dollars in the next six years, and Business Manager Couch said he thinks there will be more work than the 1,200 members of Local 733 can handle.

"It means stability and a good solid work force with work to do for years to come," Couch said. He anticipates a downturn until March, but then he expects things to turn around for some time to come.

"There is a big backlog of work and I can see putting 200-300 workers on the list in the next year," Couch said.

Land lubbing electricians thinking about heading down to Ingalls are welcome, Couch said, and there is a training program to help speed the jump from land to sea electrical work.

Marine journeyman Couch said the most important difference is the increase in the number of blueprints used in shipbuilding, usually three or four for every room.

"There is math involved," Couch said about the complex measurements necessary to translate all those blueprints into a functioning warship, but he said after a short time a good inside electrician will make a good shipbuilding electrician. Unsurprisingly though, you can't just show up and expect to work the same day. There is an extensive background check and drug testing to pass before you can do a minute's work on the most advanced warships in the American naval arsenal.

Construction on the next America class ship, to be called USS Tripoli, begins at Ingalls this spring.



Amphibious assault ship USS America waiting for the final piece of the launch deck.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Huntington-Ingalls Industries


Lynn Pace, wife of retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and son of an IBEW Local 3 member, christening the USS America in front of Gen. James Amos, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Capt. Robert A. Hall Jr., prospective commanding officer and Irwin Edenzon, President of Ingalls Shipbuilding.

Photo credit: Courtesy Huntington-Ingalls Industries


Amphibious assault ship USS America waiting for the final piece of the launch deck.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Huntington-Ingalls Industries

USS America
Length 844 feet (WW II era aircraft carrier length)
Beam(width) 106 feet
Displacement 44,971 tons
Power Plant Two 5,000 horsepower diesel generators

Two 35,000 horsepower gas turbines
Speed 22 knots
Endurance 9,500 miles
Crew 1,059
Marine detachment 1,800
Feet of optic cable 5,196,000
The Construction
Man hours 7,000,000
Number of
Local 733 members that worked on America
Value of Contract $2.4 billion
Electricians needed 200-300