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How Bath Iron Works Stands To Benefit From The Navy’s Proposed Fleet Expansion

Mary Schwalm
Associated Press
Confetti and streamers fly as the future USS Thomas Hudner, a U.S. Navy destroyer named after Korean War veteran Thomas Hudner, is christened at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, Saturday, April 1, 2017.

Congress is poised to embrace the Navy’s goal of expanding from its current fleet of 275 ships to 355. Doing so will be costly — the Congressional Budget Office has estimated a price tag of more than $26 billion a year. But if the spending is approved, it will mean a ramp-up in production, and that will likely be good news for one of the state’s largest employers, Bath Iron Works.

This is the first in a two-part series.

While much of the construction of a warship is done with computer-run automation, there are still plenty of workers involved in welding and fitting together steel sections of each ship. For BIW, building destroyers has been its principal work for over a century.

“We have great faith in Bath. Bath built, best built. And we look forward to this relationship growing and becoming even stronger,” said Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on a recent visit to BIW.

Spencer toured two Zumwalt-class destroyers, the most modern destroyers in the Navy, and then climbed aboard one of the four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers under construction. Because of their expense, only three Zumwalts will be built, but to reach the Navy’s 355-ship target more Burke destroyers may be part of the mix.

Spencer said there are more threats to U.S. interests around the world than ships to respond.

“These threats, we don’t see them diminishing in any way, The Navy-Marine Corps team needs to have these platforms out there for power projection,” he said.

The goal of a larger Navy has broad bipartisan support in Congress and among members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

“I completely agree with him that our Navy is under tremendous stress and that our Naval fleet is not sufficient to meet all of the challenges and threats that we face today,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Collins acknowledged that expanding the fleet will take years, and a significant increase in funding.

Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for a New American Security, said the mix of ship types that will be constructed is important and BIW is positioned to benefit.

“Bath Iron Works, which has been a classic and historical site that has been building ships for over 150 years now, will of course be a part of the ramp-up to a 355-ship Navy,” he said.

Some of that ramp-up will be for new ships, but it also may involve extending the life of existing ships, including the Perry class of frigates built at BIW. The idea is to refurbish half a dozen of the ships to handle drug interdiction duties that now are being performed by the far more advanced Burke-class destroyers.

The Navy is also considering a whole new class of frigates.

“Bath has a history of building frigates in the past and could do so again in the future depending on the naval characteristics the Navy wants on this frigate and then what it looks like in terms of pricing and the capacity of the shipyard to build them while they are also building destroyers,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

The frigates will not be as expensive as the two types of destroyers currently being built at BIW — the Zumwalts cost over $4 billion each, and the Burkes cost over $1 billion apiece. Over the next decade, some analysts say the Navy will want to start work on a new class of cruiser to replace retiring ships, and those are expected to cost more than either of the destroyers.

A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine said he supports the concept of a larger Navy, but that he’s worried about where the money will come from. The Trump administration hasn’t made that clear.

“The reality is we are already running a half-trillion a year budget deficit, and that is expected to run into the indefinite future,” he said.

How big an impact the growth of the Navy will have on Maine depends on what decisions Congress makes on shipbuilding now and in the coming years.

Currently, more than 6,000 people work at BIW. Their payroll accounts for more than $400 million a year. But there are hundreds of suppliers of related goods and services throughout the state that employ thousands more.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.