The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to approve changes to a defense spending bill aimed at shielding Maine’s Bath Iron Works from potentially costly design alterations in the Navy destroyer program.

Maine Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in response to concerns about language requiring BIW to equip two destroyers previously authorized by Congress with a new, more advanced radar system. The new radar is expected to significantly improve the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer’s ability to detect and destroy enemy targets, including ballistic missiles.

But Maine delegation members as well as officials from General Dynamics-owned BIW worry that integrating the complex new radar system into the ships could prove more costly than anticipated because the significant design changes are not yet complete. And under the fixed-price contracts insisted upon by the Navy, the Bath shipyard could be forced to absorb any additional costs.

The amendment approved Thursday would block what Pingree and Poliquin said were “retroactive changes” to the authorized ships. It would allow BIW to build the first of the two destroyers around the existing radar system, known as a Flight IIA design. The second ship would include the new radar system – or Flight III design – but the Navy and shipyard would share the financial risk of cost overruns connected with the redesign.

PRESSURE ON CONTRACTORS

“Bath Iron Works, employing thousands of hardworking Mainers, plays an essential role in ensuring our Nation’s defense and strength,” Poliquin, R-2nd District, said in a statement. “It is critical we support these shipbuilders, who provide for our safety at home and abroad.”

“Congress shouldn’t be inserting itself into complex contract negotiations like this, especially once they’re underway,” Pingree, D-1st District, said in a statement. “Doing so unnecessarily threatens the job security of hundreds of hard-working Mainers at Bath Iron Works.”

The House is expected to vote on the full defense bill Friday. Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins are involved in the version now working its way through the Senate.

The legislative and contract debate over Flight IIA versus Flight III ships could have real implications for BIW, which is one of Maine’s largest private employers.

For decades, BIW has been regarded as the “lead shipyard” in construction of the Arleigh Burke-class or DDG 51 guided missile destroyers. The other shipyard that builds the roughly $1.7 billion destroyers is Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. And while Congress and the Navy have historically split the work between the two shipyards, the price competition between BIW and Ingalls Shipbuilding is intensifying as the Navy puts more price pressure on contractors.

BIW officials are under pressure to reduce costs as the shipyard gears up for the next multi-ship contract with the Navy. BIW also lost a contract competition last year to design and build the next-generation Coast Guard cutter.

SHIPYARD COMPETITION

Defense-related news organizations that closely track Navy shipbuilding programs reported last year that the Navy invited Ingalls Shipbuilding to bid on a Flight III ship that was supposed to go to BIW. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation had fought hard to secure that additional destroyer as part of a complex “ship swap” agreement negotiated more than a decade ago between the Navy, BIW and the Mississippi shipyard.

A report last year from the nonpartisan Government Accountabilty Office recommended that the Navy delay procurement of the first Flight III ships while the military completes work on the design and acquisition of the new radar system.

Officials at the Bath shipyard, which employs roughly 6,000 workers, said the Poliquin-Pingree amendment was “aimed at preserving shipbuilding jobs in Maine.”

“Bath Iron Works is grateful for the work of Rep. Poliquin and Rep. Chellie Pingree for advancing legislative language that maintains strong support for the U.S. Navy and for the thousands of men and women in Maine who build Navy ships,” BIW said in a statement. “By working together and with their Republican and Democratic House colleagues, Congressman Poliquin and Congresswoman Pingree have helped protect funding for construction of Arleigh Burke destroyers in Bath in the House version of the 2018 Defense Authorization bill. The representatives’ advocacy balances the goal of bringing upgrades to our Navy fleet as soon as possible with the need to have a sufficiently complete design.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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