Marinette Marine worker Jason Tordeur welds Janée Lambert Bonner's initials into a nameplate that will be installed on the the future USS Little Rock LCS 9, on Thursday at a keel-laying ceremony at Marinette Marine. Bonner, back right with facemask, is the wife of U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner and is considered a crewmember of the ship to bring good luck. <br> EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Marinette Marine worker Jason Tordeur welds Janée Lambert Bonner's initials into a nameplate that will be installed on the the future USS Little Rock LCS 9, on Thursday at a keel-laying ceremony at Marinette Marine. Bonner, back right with facemask, is the wife of U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner and is considered a crewmember of the ship to bring good luck.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
MARINETTE - Thursday afternoon marked a time of great celebration for Marinette Marine Corp. First, there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the old Globe Furniture building, which is set to become headquarters for Marinette Marine's Littoral Combat Ship partner, Lockheed Martin Corp. - the company that conducts all of the sea trials for the Marinette Marine-built Freedom Class LCSs.

Later in the afternoon, Marinette Marine's massive Building No. 10 was the venue for a wondrous keel laying ceremony for the future USS Little Rock (LCS 9). The ship will become the fifth littoral combat ship constructed for the U.S. Navy by Marinette Marine.

Numerous dignitaries from across the nation and the globe came to Marinette for the keel laying ceremony, including the ship's sponsor, Janee L. Bonner, the wife of Republican U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner of Mobile, Ala.

"It is a privilege to have been to sponsor the USS Little Rock," Bonner said, during her remarks at the keel laying ceremony. "As you all know, the keel laying marks the beginning of what will be a lifelong relationship between myself, this ship and the crews that will serve aboard her.

"I'm proud to be here today with some of the most talented shipbuilders in America, right here at this shipyard. This ship has been designed to meet changing threats and will provide unique access and dominance in coastal waters. I am honored to serve as her sponsor and to fully support the brave crews that will serve aboard her to defend our country for years to come," Bonner said.

After the ceremony, Marinette Marine President and CEO, Chuck Goddard, and Joe North, Lockheed Martin Vice President of Littoral Ships and Systems, Systems and Training, took questions from the media.

North was asked to address Lockheed Martin's plans for the former Globe Furniture building.

"Really what we've done there is consolidated our largest group of folks that we employ up here, and that's the testing - it will grow to about 60-plus. Between now and the start of next year it grow to about 50. 

"Right now there are 21 of us in there, ten of which are from the local area - Michigan and Wisconsin - and we're about to hire 25 more in the next few months. That will be posted locally, and we're hoping to bring folks in, get them trained up and start helping us out.

"We house them there, we do all the test reports, test analysis. These are the guys that ride the (sea) trials," he explained. "It's a three-year lease right now, but we plan on extending as we get the additional ships coming."

Speaking of additional ships, Goddard said he was very excited that Marinette Marine is now working at full capacity on the LCS program. There are currently four of the agile Navy warships under various stages of construction at the shipyard, he explained.

"This is just extremely incredible for us - we've got four LCS under construction - of the three that we have in the building right now, Milwaukee (LCS 5) will launch this fall, and right next door we have Detroit (LCS 7), and she'll launch in the winter - and we just laid the keel for the third one in the building," Goddard said.

As for MMC's upgraded capabilities, Goddard said "this is really the start of where we need to be." 

Currently, Marinette Marine employs 1,400 men and women but it is looking for additional employees who are highly-skilled in specific aspects of the shipbuilding trades, he said.

Goddard said he anticipates the launch of the future USS Little Rock just 15 months from now.

"We'll ask or sponsor to come back (at that time) to do her real job, where she gets to christen the ship," he said, with a laugh.

According, to Goddard, with MMC's more aggressive LCS shipbuilding approach, the yard will soon be launching one new vessel about every six months. None of which would be possible without the huge $73.5 million, capital improvement investment Marinette Marine's parent company - Italian-based Finacantieri Marine Group - put into the Marinette shipyard.

Fincantieri Marine Group's President and CEO, Francesco Valente, was on hand in Marinette for Thursday's celebration.

"We have put in place the foundation for what is becoming the successful future growth for not only Marinette Marine, but all of our other facilities," Valente said of Fincantieri's investment in American shipbuilding.

Valente explained that his company's investment in the facilities at Marinette Marine will enable the shipyard to churn out high quality ships for the Navy much more efficiently and inexpensively than was possible just three short years ago.

"We have capacity now to produce more than the two LCS that we deliver each year," he said, explaining that even more important was the far-reaching economic impact the program has had, and will continue to have, on the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and beyond.

"Finacantieri is the largest shipbuilding and ship repair company in the western world, and No. 4 globally" Valente said. 

"We came here (to Marinette) not for the short-term financial investment, but for a long-tem industrial investment in America. We are here to build ships, and we expect to produce the finest ships in the United States," he said.