A crane moves the lower stern into place on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, June 22, 2017.

A crane moves the lower stern into place on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, June 22, 2017. U.S. Navy / John Whalen

Defense Business Brief: Navy supply chain challenges and worker shortages; FedEx wants missile countermeasures on its planes; and more

It’s been no secret: America’s shipbuilders have a shortage of the welders and pipefitters needed to build the Navy’s future fleet. Add the decline in companies that make unique parts for ships and submarines, and things get even more challenging.

Matthew Sermon, executive director of Program Executive Office Strategic Submarines, peeled the onion back on these two issues at this week’s Surface Navy Association National Symposium. Among the “fragile market sectors” he’s monitoring: castings, forgings, fittings, valves, mechanical equipment, and electrical equipment. 

That list “might cause you to say: ‘Well, what else is there?,” he said. “But, you know, that's what it is. That's where we are. That's the reality of it.”

The other big item, and this is not unique to defense companies, is hiring and retaining skilled workers. 

“We do not have that high-skilled technical trade workforce that we need to get to the demand signal that we have in the defense industrial base now,” Sermon said.

During visits to 200 suppliers over the past six years, Sermon said the “overwhelming story” from companies is welder, pipefitter, and machinist shortages. Some companies have built relationships with trades schools, high schools, and even middle schools in an effort to recruit future workers.

“We're working on a couple of very specific, pipeline kind of projects to prove out that we can do this,” he said. “Those are not submarine projects—those are all-of-us-projects, because that industrial base…is connected.”

Last month, President Biden signed three directives that allow the Navy to use the Defense Production Act to increase production of Virginia-class submarines.

“These activities will strengthen the shipbuilding industrial base and allow its heavy manufacturing and large scale fabrication suppliers to meet growing demand and expand the maritime workforce training pipeline,” the Pentagon said in a December statement.

Bonus: 60 Minutes did a deep dive into U.S. workers shortages last weekend. Watch it here.

The Supreme Court has blocked President Biden’s COVID vaccine and testing mandates for companies with more than 100 workers. Biden’s contractor vaccine mandate, which was supposed to take effect next week, has been suspended by lower courts.

FedEx wants to install military-style missile countermeasures on some of its cargo planes so they can fly over dangerous locations, according to a Federal Aviation Administration notice posted in the Federal Register. The notice states that FedEx wants to install the equipment in its Airbus A321 aircraft. Only problem: FedEx doesn’t fly A321 aircraft. Sounds like there are some kind of talks underway. The military has the same type of countermeasures installed on its large cargo planes and fleet of VIP jetliners that fly the president, vice president, and senior cabinet officials.

Making moves

Ellen Lord, the former defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment during the Trump administration, has joined the board of Geost, a company that builds space sensors that help protect satellites. 

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