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Coast Guard, Industry Team Put Finishing Touches on Cutter Bertholf & Apply Lessons Learned to Sister Ship, Waesche

By Hunter C. Keeter

Diesel engine start on board USCGC Bertholf
Coast Guard Senior Chief William Bodley (right) pushes the button to start the first diesel engine on board USCGC Bertholf. Witnessing the latest milestone are Test Engineer David Peterson and Senior Test Engineer R.A. Smith, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman Ship Systems)

PASCAGOULA, Miss.—Inside the new ship, rare jets of chilled air from cooling units bolted to the weather deck above are the only practical respite from the stifling Mississippi heat. The noise –the roar of machinery and the ventilation system– is powerful; it cancels out the cries of the gulls hovering over the Gulf around the ship. Not simply enduring but working through the heat and the noise, U.S. Coast Guard and shipyard personnel negotiate dim passageways crowded with cables and equipment, tools and pre-fabricated parts. The intermittent flash of cutting torches and the spray of sparks as craftsmen and –women make final adjustments are the tell-tale signs that this vessel is nearing completion.

The ship is the National Security Cutter, or NSC, named the Bertholf. When it is delivered early next year, the Coast Guard will have procured the first of a class of eight of the most technologically advanced cutters in its 217 year history. The second NSC, the Waesche, is approximately 30 percent complete, and is being erected at an assembly area beside the Bertholf on the Northrop Grumman Ship Systems yard.

At the shipyard and at the NSC project’s administrative office in Arlington, Va., the government and industry workforce is working toward the next major milestone: delivery, which is scheduled for early to mid-fiscal year 2008. Delivery will mark the date of the Coast Guard’s formal acceptance of the ship from the builder, the point in time when custody of the vessel officially transfers from the shipbuilder to the government and from the Coast Guard’s project office to the ship’s captain and crew.

“This is really a team effort … with the government and industry working together,” said Cmdr. Douglas M. Schofield, deputy at the Project Manager’s Resident Office (PMRO) Gulf Coast, which oversees the building of the NSC. “The complexity factor of this project is just like building a city on the water.”

While the team is focused on a daunting list of tasks to complete before testing and delivery, there is a real sense of progress in nearing completion of the first ship. It is apparent that the NSC has come a long way from the start of its fabrication in September 2004.

“Three years to build a ship seems pretty good, especially when it is the first-of-class and a very complicated ship,” said Martin F. Mardiros, a Coast Guard naval architect on assignment from Engineering Logistics Center, Baltimore.

Typically, first-of-class shipbuilding projects may take between three and six years from contract award to delivery, depending upon the complexity of the vessel and other factors. Some examples: the Coast Guard’s high endurance cutter CGC Hamilton (WHEC 715) was awarded in fiscal year 1964 and delivered on Feb. 20, 1967. The U.S. Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7) guided missile frigate was awarded on Oct. 30, 1973 and delivered on Nov. 30, 1977. The USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), first of the Navy’s Aegis destroyers, was awarded on Apr. 2, 1985 and delivered on April 29, 1991. Finally, the Cyclone (PC 1) coastal patrol craft was awarded on August 3, 1990 and delivered on Feb. 19, 1993.

The Bertholf is a complex ship, with capabilities that surpass those of the current fleet’s high endurance cutters. The NSC features increased patrol endurance (60–90 day patrol cycles); more powerful weapons (including the Mk110 57mm main gun); a larger flight deck; chemical-biological & radiological environmental hazard detection and defense; and improved command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment. With a suite of modern air and surface search radars and target classification optics, the NSCs’ sensor range and capabilities also are extended and augmented by aircraft, such as the modernized MH-65C Dolphin helicopter.

Building modern vessels for the U.S. Navy, and now the Coast Guard, is a process for which the facility at Pascagoula was specifically designed in the 1970s.

Equipped with 100-ton, 300-ton and 660-ton cranes and gantries, the shipyard here is designed to erect ships in individual assemblies, which contain decks stacked within huge sections of the outer hull. The units are built upside down (because welding down is easier than welding up) at large assembly halls, away from the waterfront. There, the assemblies are outfitted with piping, ventilation ducts and other sub-assemblies and equipment. In certain sections of the ship, these units are stacked together in what are called “grand blocks.” The completed units and grand blocks are then brought down to the ship’s keel, which is laid at a site on the waterfront. The units are assembled, or erected, and welded together.

A “translation system,” a network of steel rails embedded in the ground at the waterfront, allows the grand blocks and erected sections to be moved by rail cars. When the ship is ready to be launched, it is shifted by rail onto a submersible barge and floated off into Pascagoula Bay. In 2006, the Bertholf was launched this way and has spent the past year in the water as work on her superstructure and below decks is completed. Now the ship has been raised out of the water for inspection and painting prior to the beginning of sea trials.

Lessons Learned

As the Bertholf has come through the construction process, the shipyard and the PMRO have been learning valuable lessons –in the areas of design and engineering, and construction processes– that already are being applied to the Waesche.

Jim French, NSC deputy program manager with Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, said the infrastructure at the shipyard itself has evolved from the lessons learned through building many Navy ships over the years. For example, the shipyard’s shops –which manufacture miles of piping, ductwork, electrical assemblies installed aboard a modern ship– are located away from the waterfront. Fabricated materiel is brought to the keel site, where craftsmen have access to it without leaving the vessel under construction, saving valuable man hours and dollars.

Making efficient use of the shipyard’s infrastructure and fabrication & assembly process improvements has been a goal for the NSC project, according to Chief Warrant Officer Walter Probst, test officer at PMRO Gulf Coast. Probst noted that work done in the assembly halls or shops is money saved at the waterfront.

“If shop work has, for example, a dollar value of one, to do that same work when erecting that unit on the keel box increases the value to three dollars,” he said. “Then any work that is not done on the keel box –work that waits until after float off– is going to cost five dollars. That is a very general rule of thumb. So any work that we can move back to the shop is money saved on the cost of the ship.”

The rule of thumb about work costs and other lessons has helped the Coast Guard and industry develop their own process improvements that have built on the experience of designing and constructing the Bertholf. Already this learning process has yielded improvements in the Waesche, which now is approximately 10-15 percent ahead of where the Bertholf was at the same point in its construction schedule.

Coast Guard Capt. William S. Krewsky, commanding officer at PMRO Gulf Coast, added that lessons learned from NSC 1 have enabled more work to be done in the shops, so that NSC 2’s sections may be brought to the keel more than 95 percent complete for assembly.

A look aft at the underside of the Waesche provides two massive examples of the benefit of completing more work in the shops and assembly halls. The stern tubes, which are two house-sized steel cylinders that enclose the ship’s propeller shafts, were easier and less risky to put in place aboard the Waesche than they had been aboard the Bertholf.

“On the Bertholf we had to land the stern tubes and erect the unit over top of them, and then chain-fall them [with many workers together, hoisting the heavy tubes] up into place,” Jim French said. “The stern tubes weigh several thousand pounds each. On the NSC 2, we landed them while the hull assembly was inverted [up in the assembly hall] so that when we got them down here to the keel box, all we had to do was weld them into place.”

Another example of a lesson learned that has saved money and time can be seen in the Waesche’s engineering spaces. Adjustments that had been required to land the main propulsion equipment and engines aboard the Bertholf taught the PMRO and the shipyard a more efficient procedure that was used on the Waesche.

“Loading out the main diesel engines in a day vs. a week was a big accomplishment,” CWO Probst said during a tour of the Waesche. “When they landed the equipment aboard the Bertholf, they had to cut a temporary access hole and then weld it back shut. So we eliminated that re-work here. They also had re-work to do in fitting up the reduction gear foundation to the lower level of the engine room foundation. All the piping was pre-fit on NSC 2, and they dropped all the machinery in there in one afternoon. That is typical of everything on [the Waesche].”

Other lessons learned may be more difficult to quantify in terms of man-hours or process efficiencies. Nevertheless, the shipyard and the PMRO have overcome major challenges since the Bertholf’s keel was laid down.

Perhaps the most significant challenge the NSC team has confronted has been the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The storm hit in 2005, when the Bertholf was about 25 percent complete. Katrina did enormous damage to the shipyard’s workforce and infrastructure.

The hurricane crashed through Singing River Island –which lies across the Mississippi Sound from the shipyard– and piled the island’s trees and other debris around the Bertholf, which at that time was on its keel blocks at the waterfront. While the ship itself was lightly damaged (its bow thruster was inundated with salt water and the motor corroded), after the storm the shipbuilders confronted the daunting task of cleaning away debris so work could resume.

“In spite of that, just 12 days after Hurricane Katrina, we struck an arc on this ship [the first ship at the yard on which NGSS resumed work after the hurricane],” French said. “This work crew is proud of this ship and they are dedicated to finishing it and getting it out to sea.”

Royce Winbush, Northrop Grumman Ship Systems NSC ship director, added that his pride in the project is rooted in the way the workforce overcame the challenge of Katrina. He cited one example of the impact the storm had on a sub-assembly –the gas turbine intake cone– that created a significant challenge for the workforce to overcome.

“We had to rebuild the intake cone [which had been damaged by salt water],” he said. “We are talking about a 100 inch square trunk, about 30-40 feet long. We had to cut that thing in half in order to put it in the ship. All the finished structure that had been completed at that point of the ship had to be cut up in order to accommodate this big cone coming through. [Nevertheless] we were able to continue building the ship around that area, and then when the intake cone was finished fabrication, we accommodated it.”

As the PMRO and the shipyard prepare Bertholf for sea trials and delivery, few are more enthusiastic about the prospect of completing the Bertholf and getting her to sea than the crew, led by Coast Guard Capt. Patrick H. Stadt. His crew, based at Alameda, Calif., where the Bertholf is to be home-ported, is one of three being trained to man the NSCs as they are delivered.

Stadt’s crew and the Waesche’s pre-commissioning crew have helped support testing and equipment inspections aboard the Bertholf. Close working relationships of this kind are part of the lessons learned process, helping to educate the new generation of Coast Guard cutter crews that will operate the NSCs.

Last Modified 1/12/2016