Monday, August 21, 2017

The Next Pearl Harbor - Shipyards

We recently discussed carrier losses in a future war and noted the need to be able to “quickly” replace those losses.  I say “quickly” because carriers take a long time to build even on an expedited wartime basis.  The current 5-7 year construction time frames might be condensed to 3-4 years but that’s still a long time.

Currently, we have only one shipyard capable of constructing carriers and that is Newport News Shipbuilding yard in VirginiaNewport News is also one of only two yards that build our nuclear submarines and the only yard that refuels nuclear carriers.

If we were to somehow lose the use of that shipyard during a time of war, it would be a monumental loss.  Does this suggest a likely Pearl Harbor scenario to you?  If an enemy could destroy Newport News Shipbuilding yard, they’d effectively destroy all future carriers and half of all new submarines for the foreseeable future.

Yes, you reluctantly admit, that would be disastrous but it would be very difficult, likely impossible, for an enemy to destroy a facility that large without resorting to a nuclear bomb or a naval fleet so large that it would have no hope of assembling and sailing undetected to the east coast of the United States, you say.  Well, that’s probably true but there is no need for an enemy to resort to nuclear bombs, huge fleets, or wholesale destruction of the yard.  The yard has a few key points of failure, the most noteworthy and vulnerable of which are the enormous cranes that lift and move the subsections of a vessel.  Nowadays, ships are built in “lifts”, or subsections, and if you can’t move the subsections, you can’t build a ship.  It’s that simple.  Destroy the cranes and you destroy the yard, for all practical purposes. 

Specifically, there is only one crane that services aircraft carriers.  It is referred to as “Big Blue” and it is the largest crane in the Western Hemisphere

“Big Blue is a gantry style crane that stands 233 feet tall, and has a span of 540 feet from leg to leg. It weighs 4,600 metric tons (10.1 million pounds). It was built in 1976 by the German company Krupp. The two legs straddle the huge dry-dock at Newport News Shipbuilding, where the first Ford-class aircraft carrier is currently being assembled. On each side of the dock are a pair of rails, so the entire craned can move up and down the ship's length, and the payload is attached to a carriage on the main girder that can translate side to side.

As originally installed, it could lift 900 metric tons (just under two million pounds), but in preparation for building the Ford-class carriers the shipbuilders needed to increase that.  …  Now, each of the three hooks can carry 350 metric tons, bringing the crane's lifting capacity to 1,050 metric tons (that's just over 2.3 million pounds). Each hook has over a mile of 1-5/8-inch diameter wire rope behind it.” (1)

Similarly, Newport News submarine construction facility depends on cranes to move subsections and transfer “cars” to roll entire submarines out of the construction building and to a drydock for subsequent fitting out.  Destruction of the crane or transfer systems would cripple submarine construction for years.

Big Blue Crane - The Next Pearl Harbor?

Destruction of these couple of vulnerable pieces of equipment is a perfect mission for your basic sabotage and/or special forces.  Given the porosity of our borders, it’s quite plausible for China to slip a special forces unit into the country and target the cranes and transfer cars.

This blindingly obvious shipyard Pearl Harbor vulnerability suggests several measures we should be taking to prepare for, and mitigate, the impact of such a loss.

  • We ought to be be considering construction of conventional, non-nuclear, “basic” carriers with no frills, especially in light of today’s reduced air wing sizes.  These carriers would be complements, not replacements, for Nimitz/Ford class carriers.  Hopefully, such a basic carrier would be markedly cheaper and quicker to build and able to be built in yards other than Newport News.

  • We should begin qualifying additional yards to build carriers.

  • We should greatly beef up security around our critical yards.

  • We should acquire and stockpile replacement components for critical pieces of equipment such as cranes and transfer cars.

  • I’m never in favor of government run enterprises because they are, inevitably, inefficient and far more costly than private enterprise but, given the lack of yards qualified to construct major warships, thought should be given to re-establishing government owned and run ship construction yards.

There are “Pearl Harbors” all around us, waiting to happen, that would be far more devastating than the actual Pearl Harbor attack in WWII and we need to begin recognizing them and taking defensive measures.


(1)Gizmodo website, “The 233-Foot Tall, 4600-Ton Crane That Builds Aircraft Carriers”, Brent Rose, 26-Sep-2012,


  1. I totally agree Newport News is vulnerable in 2 ways sabatoge and by surprise attack by cruise missiles fired from say a submarine destruction of the cranes could devastate shipbuilding for months if not years we need backup yards such as Philadelphia has then one in the gulf coast and West coast trouble is the cost to maintain a largely nonprofitable yard if it's for government service only that's the reason Philadelphia is shut down now I think

  2. We lost the steel industry, with that subsidiary industries like shipyards withered on the vine. If you said GO tomorrow, South Korea could probably have a new supercarrier in the water before the USA could. Not just shipyards, but the heavy industrial infrastructure to back them.

    The decline in shipyards in the USA is just another indication of our infrastructure and core economic strengths rotting. The mining is no longer there, the smelters and steel mills are no longer there, the shipyards are no longer there. There is no way we could fight World War II WITH WWII EQUIPMENT right now. We simply couldn't build it (not even taking into account how soft fighting-age Americans are).

    1. I may be a little late in the discussion.
      Here is a publication by the late Sen. McCain:

      It brings up many of the issues you mentioned. It also brings up a few things CONOPS brings up. We must be willing to build smaller carriers and conventionally powered. That would be around the Midway/Forestal class. We cannot afford to put a 14 Billion dollar asset in any sort of danger. But a lot of people think you need to sink a carrier to put it out of commision. All you need to do, is damage a carrier enough so it cannot launch or recover planes. Just get it listing a little, and you have a disabled 14 Billion dollar table top in the middle of an ocean.

      I should bring up another thing that wasnt mentioned, was PSNS here in Bremerton. It has the only drydock on the west coast that can handle handle Nimitz class carriers. I dont know if it would be able to handle the Ford class carriers.

      I have worked at PSNS at one time. Back then, a lot of equipment was old, buildings were laid out wrong for what we did. Originally, it was designed to build ships. As time went on, it lost the capability.

      Also, don't forget about the 2 Trident bases.
      There is a lot more I could go into. But we, as a nation, would be in a world of hurt if we got into a peer to peer or close fight. I do know, we have lost a lot of our heavy industry and the related technology, and people. I do know, it takes more than 2 or 3 months to learn how to be a machine operator of say a press brake, drill press, rolls to make cylindrical things.

      One thing that I can say. Years ago, the private yards made sure the public shipyards could not build new vessels. As time went on, the number of private yards that could build ships folded, got bought out, etc. Eventually it left only a few yards able to build any kind of ship. We only have ONE shipyard that builds carriers, so pretty much, what the shipyard wants, they will get. Also, the Navys ability to do in house engineering is almost gone, if not totally.

  3. Oh your in luck, we (UK) are just selling ours as we are just finishing off our second QE Class aircraft carrier.

    Its a few feet smaller, but can lift about 100 tonnes more.

    Ill wrap it up, and post it next week ok ?

    1. P.S. I only mention this to demonstrate your point and that we also seem extreamly short sighted in this respect !

    2. The link takes me to a subscription page. I can't see the article. What does it say?

    3. "we (UK) are just selling ours as we are just finishing off our second QE Class aircraft carrier."

      You're not planning to build another large ship ever again?

    4. I don't think Americans often realise how utterly stupid the UK GOV is. There was talk of selling the second carrier before it has even been built. The Royal Navy is getting 8 so called Global combat frigates and then a fewer bog standard FFG-lite (FCS style). Along with the 6 Type 45s and maybe the second carrier (if it isn't sold off) which will double as an LPH (!!!). that's it. A Shop window navy.

    5. Sorry CNO, The UK is selling the "goliath" crane that built the QE Class Aircraft Carriers. it looks almost Identical to the one in your article.

      I certainly hope we will be building some large capital ships again !!!!

      Just not with this crane ;)

      There is much debate over here about a "national ship building strategy". As recent ships have been built in blocks ( similar to your lifts ) around the country, but we now have just 1 majour assembly yard in Govan, Scotland.

      Up until recently we at least had 2, (Portsmouth).

      Stratigically very silly.

    6. So the cost of building your next large ship is going to have to include the cost of building another large crane?

    7. Oh you’re opening a can of worms there!

      BAE tried to hit up UKGOV for the cost of consolidating 2 old yards very close to each other in Glasgow to for 1 new “Frigate Factory” yard in Scotsdown as part of the Type 26 build.

      Obviously “tooling” is always a cost in a new build. But you can certainly take this too far.

      Block build technology does come on leaps and bounds.

      The question becomes when will be next need to get 1000 tonnes 223 feet in the air?

      Sadly, let’s face it; it’s going to be a while.

      Crane was only recently bought for £100 million, I guess selling it now for a quick return is at least sensible :S

      unless there is a war, as I think is your point.

      Why wait for the next pearl harbour, when you can nobble yourself ahead of the attack.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.