Though they may not be fully aware of it, the 248 employees of south Louisiana boat builder Metal Shark will play a role in a geopolitical chess match between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in late May pledged funding to purchase Metal Shark Defiant 75 Class patrol boats for the Vietnam Coast Guard. Last year, Vietnamese sailors had one of their patrol boats rammed by a Chinese ship, and they routinely play cat-and-mouse games with the communist country.
Metal Shark Vice President Greg Lambrecht said last week the company hopes to begin building the boats in July. Lambrecht would not say what the dollar amount of the contract was or how many of the 40-knot cruising Defiant 75 boats the company would build.
A story by Reuters said the contract was for $18 million.
Once America’s enemy, Vietnam is now a U.S. ally and one of the countries with interests in claiming the many islands that dot the South China Sea.
The U.S., like Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, has an interest in keeping an increasingly aggressive China in check, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany said last week.
“As this region becomes more contentious, Louisiana is playing an outsized role in representing American interests and helping our friends with their security needs,” said Boustany, a Republican from Lafayette.
According to Bloomberg, the vast South China Sea is the transportation route for $5.3 trillion in cargo each year and has estimated reserves of 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas.
On Wednesday, Metal Shark employees at the Jeanerette facility tended to the day’s business: bending aluminum at precise angles with a 150-ton press; cutting lines and curves in aluminum sheets with computer guidance; wiring up consoles that will be easily installed; and mixing paint to meet specifications. Every square foot of the facility was in production, and every hand at the site was busy.
Nineteen miles from the Jeanerette yard, 65 Metal Shark craftsmen built bigger boats at the company’s Franklin facility, which is next to a dock on the Charenton Drainage and Navigational Canal. The canal has access to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lambrecht said the Franklin facility will handle the Vietnam order, which is still in the contracting stage.
“We’re the first defense equipment provider to enter that market,” Lambrecht said. “It’s exciting for us. That market is one of our growth markets.”
The Gravois family started Gravois Aluminum Boats in 1986 at the Jeanerette facility, selling boats to Gulf fishermen. In 2006 the company signed its first military contract to build and deliver 90 boats, and the company took on the name Metal Shark.
Metal Shark now produces 150 to 200 boats a year, and is the preferred small patrol boat builder for the U.S. Coast Guard. It also builds for the Navy, Army, Air Force, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and for the state’s sheriff’s offices.
And it builds patrol boats for foreign governments and sends training teams internationally, including to Vietnam.
“It’s exciting to see a South Louisiana company like Metal Shark playing such an important role helping navies and coast guards in the South China Sea stand their ground against Chinese expansion,” said Boustany, who has visited the region.
The Metal Shark Defiant 75 Class, the vessels that will be sold to Vietnam, will be constructed at the Franklin facility, a more expansive locale that Metal Shark opened about a year ago, Lambrecht said.