Austal held a keel-laying ceremony on Nov. 8 for its second Joint High Speed Vessel, the Choctaw County (JHSV 2), one of seven Austal-designed 103-meter U.S. Navy JHVS under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

U.S. Navy Capt. Henry W. Stevens, III, Strategic and Theater Sealift Program Manager, PMS 385, served as the Authenticator at the ceremony, and was assisted by Brandon Mims, an “A” Class welder who has been part of the Austal team since June 2007.

The object of a traditional keel-laying ceremony is to mark the first significant milestone in the construction of the ship. However, thanks to Austal’s modular approach to ship manufacture, the ship is actually over 50 percent complete, the company says, with every one of the more than 40 modules used to form this 103-metre aluminum catamaran design already being assembled.

Austal says keel-laying marks the beginning of final assembly. Two super modules have been moved from Austal’s Module Manufacturing Facility and erected in the final assembly bay in their pre-launch position. The rest will follow over the coming months.

“We have worked through our first-in-class issues and are moving into serial production,” said Joe Rella, chief operating officer and president of Austal USA in a company press release. “With the fabrication of Choctaw County, we are over 30 percent more efficient at this point than we were with USNS Spearhead.”

By building pieces of the ship in a separate facility, Austal says, fabricators can install and test generators, propulsion equipment, electrical, piping and ventilation systems and other critical components in a controlled, efficient manufacturing environment.

Austal was selected as prime contractor in November 2008 to design and build the first JHSV, with options for nine additional vessels expected to be exercised between FY09 and FY13 as part of a program potentially worth over $1.6 billion.

The JHSV is a relatively new asset in the American arsenal, capable of transporting medium-sized operational units with their vehicles, allowing warfighters to transit long distances while maintaining unit integrity. Each JHSV also supports helicopter operations and has a slewing vehicle ramp on the starboard quarter that enables use of austere piers and quay walls, common in developing countries. A shallow draft (under 4 meters) will further enhance theater port access.

USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1) was christened on Sept. 17 and is preparing for builders’ trials in the near future. Congressman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) recently joined Austal officials in commemorating the official start of fabrication for JHSV 3, which is scheduled for delivery in 2013. JHSV 3 is the fourth naval vessel to be constructed at Austal using the new procedures and processes developed in conjunction with Austal’s Module Manufacturing Facility. The facility provides Austal with assembly line efficiency, which has resulted in significant cost savings and reduced lead times for both of its Navy programs.

Austal USA says it is also currently preparing to launch a second Independence-variant 127-meter Littoral Combat Ship class vessel for the U.S. Navy, Coronado (LCS 4). The USS Independence (LCS 2) is currently being put through trials by her crew. As prime contractor for the next LCS 10-ship contract, awarded by the U.S. Navy at the end of 2010, Austal reports it has also begun work on the first ship of that contract, the Jackson (LCS 6), with the Montgomery (LCS 8) also under contract.

For the LCS and JHSV programs, Austal is teamed with General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics. As the ship systems integrator, General Dynamics is responsible for the design, integration and testing of the ship’s electronic systems including the combat system, networks, and seaframe control. Austal says General Dynamics’ proven open architecture approach provides affordable capabilities to the fleet quickly and efficiently.

With its 13-year anniversary approaching, Austal has grown into one of southern Alabama’s largest employers with over 2,400 employees on staff hailing from the Mobile area, Mississippi, Florida, and beyond, the company says. Under the current workload, Austal says it expects to employ over 4,000 Americans by the end of 2013, and will be ready to help the U.S. Navy meet any national security contingency ahead.