Heavy Metal, the Inside Story of US Navy Shipbuilders

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Tomorrow is Independence Day in the United States and what could be more American than sitting on the beach, reading about heavy industry and the construction of US aircraft carriers Navy?

Michael Fabey’s new book – Heavy Metal: The Hard Days and Nights of the Shipyard Workers Who Build America – explore Huntington Ingalls Industries $HII and its largest shipyard, Newport News Shipbuilding. The book takes a hard, unvarnished look at the navy and the challenges civilian shipbuilders faced when building the world’s newest and deadliest ship, America’s Ford-class supercarriers.

It’s clear that Fabey has real “boots in the field” experience inside America’s most impressive shipyard and has developed close relationships with many of the yard workers.

In Kirkus, an influential book review magazine, Fabey’s screenplay was described as “sometimes laborious, particularly on technical issues,” but those details are exactly what will likely fascinate gCaptain’s professional maritime audience.

heavy metal shows how difficult it is to run an industrial business in America, especially when it depends on a single customer and especially when that customer is the United States Navy, which loves expensive, untested technology and floods shipyards with strange requests and many bureaucratic requirements.

For example, during the construction of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), a “Plywood Palace” was built to serve as a temporary workspace for Navy sailors. they hated it. To avoid this problem in the future, the Navy told the yard that uniformed sailors will be provided with workspaces aboard the next aircraft carrier under construction in Newport News, USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79 ).

Prior to a ship’s christening, crew members must begin training on the ship’s systems and form a cohesive team, however, Navy rules prohibit shipyard workers from entering areas after seafarers have occupied them, making it impossible for essential workers to perform even the simplest job (checking a circuit breaker or turning a valve) without getting triplicate clearance. This issue alone has caused many delays.

Delays, government bureaucracy, technology issues and change orders were just some of the problems the shipyard faced with its sole customer, the US Navy. The other big problem was Congress. Fabey shows how the shipyard is in a constant dance with politicians and the media to obtain funding.

There were also bigger problems.

When the Navy’s plans collided with the yard’s ability to influence congress via the media, funding becomes difficult for the yard.

An example of this problem is when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson (who was battling bad press following the Fat Leonard scandal and destroyer collisions in the Pacific) handcuffed the yard by imposing heavy restrictions media to all Navy public affairs. officers.

“Richardson sent a memo to Navy public affairs officers muzzling them in discussing attributes of naval equipment, programs, and platforms. This policy marked a departure from the position taken by previous NOCs, in especially Richardson’s immediate predecessor, Admiral Jonathan Greenert – like Richardson, a career nuclear submariner – who cultivated media relations and publicly detailed the benefits of what the Navy wanted to buy, build and deploy,” writes Fabey. “Thanks to Richardson’s tight-lipped policy, the Navy has continually turned down requests to send reporters on board to monitor all those planes taking off and landing. This coverage – along with images and video – has often done all the difference when applying for funding from Congress.Behind Richardson’s back, many Navy officers lamented the lack of positive media coverage.

If battling for media coverage and congressional funding while dealing with Navy bureaucracy and change orders sounds hard enough, storm clouds set in as President Trump moved in. went to the construction site to complain about the carrier’s malfunctioning electromagnetic catapult system.

Then COVID-19 hit the yard.

Fabey does a great job documenting all of these challenges as well as many shipyard triumphs. Where the books fall flat is in the biographies of the construction workers. To be fair, some of the bios, like that of labor organizer Bill Bowser, are great, but Bowser’s story is so good because Fabey gives him room to grow and puts him in the larger context of the labor and race relations at the shipyard. The problem with other characters in the book – like Newport New’s first female president, US Merchant Marine Academy graduate Jennifer Boykin who is a central figure in the book’s final chapters – is that Fabey gives us just enough detail. to pique our interest. but not enough to fully satisfy readers’ thirst.

The book would have benefited from time spent focusing more on central characters like Boykin rather than glossing over a lot of people.

The book also fails to mention the corporate side of the equation. Although this aspect is not as interesting as nuclear power plants or plasma welding, Huntington Ingalls Industries $HII is a publicly traded company and Fabey fails to mention why Wall Street gave its market cap a fraction of that of Twitter (and a tiny fraction of other defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon) or why the cost of capital for shipyard projects is so high. Fabey makes the same mistake as Navy admirals and military journalists, thinking Congress is the source of the shipyard’s funding problems while failing to acknowledge that the cost of capital, debt derivatives and bond ratings are a bigger obstacle to the health of the shipyard than Congress.

Overall, while it’s hard to keep track of everyone mentioned in this book and Fabey doesn’t include HII’s fight with Wall Street, it’s a solid read. It is also important reading. Fabey is correct in noting that public awareness of the shipyard is essential for congressional support and his book does an excellent job of highlighting this underappreciated but critically important segment for maritime safety and commerce. , of our industry.

The oceans would be a safer place if every American read this book and fully understood the importance of shipbuilders to the nation.

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