BATH – When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the Navy and its shipbuilders for building warships and submarines that are too costly, Maine’s largest shipyard took notice, but didn’t panic.

During the Navy League’s Sea Air Space symposium Monday at National Harbor, Md., Gates said the strain on the military from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars being fought primarily by the Army and Marine Corps — makes it hard to justify soaring shipbuilding costs.

He said that unless the Navy and its contractors, which include Bath Iron Works, can control their production costs, the Pentagon may have to slash the size of its fleet. Gates said the country can no longer afford to build destroyers that cost $3 billion to $6 billion or submarines that cost $7 billion.

“For us, the whole issue revolves around affordability,” BIW spokesman Jim DeMartini said Tuesday. “Everything Secretary Gates said on Monday, we are absolutely aligned with. We’ve got to continue to find ways to build ships more efficiently.”

He said it costs BIW less to build a destroyer now than it did seven years ago.

BIW has taken steps to become more efficient. It built a land-level ship transfer facility over the Kennebec River in 2001, which eliminated the need for building ships on inclined ways and for using cranes. It followed that project by developing its Ultra Hall.

The 106-foot-tall structure — the tallest building in Bath — lets workers assemble large ship parts in a climate-controlled area, further expediting the shipbuilding process.

Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, said, “I was told you could hear a pin drop during (Gates’) speech” Monday.

“He is sending a very strong signal to the Navy that it must change the way it equips its fleet,” Thompson said. “This is serious news for Bath, but there is a silver lining. Bath Iron Works is widely regarded as the Navy’s most efficient shipyard.”

Christopher Hellman, a military analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, said, “It’s only a surprise in that the secretary said something publicly to the shipbuilding community. They’re a tough gang. It’s no surprise that some of the Navy’s ship accounts are in a shambles.”

Hellman believes BIW is well-positioned to build more Navy ships, but “I wouldn’t go so far as to say the future is rosy for anyone who builds Navy ships.”

Gates’ remarks came one month after BIW celebrated the 25th anniversary of its contract award for design and construction of the USS Arleigh Burke — DDG51 — class of Aegis destroyers.

Jeff Geiger, president of BIW, said in the company’s April newsletter that the DDG51 program opened the door to good careers for thousands of Maine workers.

Geiger said more than 2,100 current workers — 40 percent of the company’s work force — were employed on April 2, 1985, the date the Navy awarded the Aegis contract to Bath.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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