A Return to U.S. Navy Shipbuilding with the FFG Program

In 1971 the Navy, under the direction of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, began serious exploration of smaller, less expensive ship designs. It was apparent that the current generation of larger ships, while enormously capable, were simply too expensive to produce in large numbers. The last of the WWII-era ships in the fleet were reaching the end of their lives, and an affordable replacement was needed.

Bath Iron Works was well-positioned to meet the Navy’s needs, with a modern shipyard well-suited to the 445-foot ships, which displaced about 4,000 tons. BIW received a design contract in 1972, a construction contract in 1973, and in the summer of 1975 laid the keel for Hull 370, the future USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7). It had been a decade since the last keel laying for a U.S. Navy ship, but BIW was finally back in the business.

One key acquisition made the FFG program possible at BIW – the yard finally purchased a drydock, so all work could be completed in Bath. The dock was old – built prior to WWI – and wooden, but filled a critical role as the yard matured and grew. The wooden sidewalls were later replaced with steel, and the dock served into the 1980s at the Portland facility, alongside the much larger drydock there.

As the FFG program got rolling, BIW focused on cost and efficiency, with impressive results. Over the course of the program BIW saw a 44 percent reduction in the time from keel laying to delivery – from 32.5 months down to 18.5 months – and BIW was building FFGs for 200,000 fewer hours per ship than a competing shipyard.

Performance improvement was driven by a disciplined focus on cost, efficiency, and safety. The pre-outfit construction approach was refined, with more work being moved earlier in the construction sequence. The Assembly Building was expanded twice, reaching its current size, to make space for more pre-outfit work. BIW also made safety a priority, and from 1975 to 1980 the yard’s safety record improved from among the worst to among the best in the industry.

These improvements led to more contracts. In the following years, BIW received contracts for 37 FFGs out of a total of 51 built for the US Navy. BIW developed a reputation for delivering each ship ahead of schedule and under budget, and by the time the last FFG was delivered in 1987, the total savings was more than $200 million across the 37 ships.

While the yard was very busy with FFGs, there were still a few commercial ships in the mix. Among these was the container ship Maui, launched in 1977. The 720-foot ship was the largest ever built in Bath – or anywhere north of Boston – and operated on a route between the West Coast and Hawaii for many years.