September 15, 2013

Washington Notebook: Sequester could slow shipbuilding

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - Most of official Washington was still focused on the crisis in Syria last week when the Navy's top civilian official delivered a little-noticed speech with potential implications for Maine's shipbuilding industry.

click image to enlarge

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, shown speaking to workers at Marinette Marine Corp. in Marinette, Wis., last week, says the Navy could be forced to eliminate three dozen scheduled maintenance periods and cancel multi-year contracts on new ships if sequestration continues.

The Associated Press

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus warned that the Navy is facing hard financial decisions in which "everything's got to be on the table" unless Congress revisits the "sequestration" spending cuts and starts living up to its budgetary responsibilities.

There are "no sacred cows now" protected from budget cuts, Mabus cautioned.

"As secretary, I have done everything possible to protect shipbuilding. But if sequestration keeps going, I can't do it forever," Mabus told a group at the military's National Defense University in Washington on Wednesday. "It is -- and there is really no other way to put this -- a dumb way to cut."

Anyone who had hoped Congress would allow the word "sequestration" to retire will likely be disappointed. Unless Republicans and Democrats can agree on a better plan, the across-the-board budget cuts known as "the sequester" will continue every year for the next nine years to the tune of roughly $100 billion a year -- half of which comes from Defense Department programs.

The new federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and Congress has yet to pass a single budget bill, much less come up with a compromise on sequestration. Instead, lawmakers are likely to pass a temporary spending bill -- or continuing resolution -- that will keep government going at current budget levels.

Mabus said that, under the current budget constraints, ships are already deploying less often and pilots are flying fewer missions. If sequestration continues, the Navy could be forced to eliminate three dozen scheduled maintenance periods and cancel multi-year contracts on new ships, he said.

Bath Iron Works, which is one of Maine's largest private employers, is already waiting to see if Congress and the Navy can come up with about $300 million more to purchase a fifth Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyer. BIW already has contracts to build four more DDG-51s at a cost of $2.8 billion.

Mabus pointed to another ship made at BIW -- the DDG-1000 -- as an example of the type of hard decisions potentially coming down the pike. Mabus called the DDG-1000 "a great ship" but "too expensive, too limited" in its capabilities. As a result, the Navy canceled the program and went back to DDG-51s, which are built at BIW by General Dynamics and at a competing shipyard in Mississippi.

"So we have to continue to do things like that. Everything's got to be on the table," Mabus said. But giving the Navy the flexibility to make those hard choices is preferable, he said, to "being forced to make cuts in certain ways that just don't make any sense."


Former U.S. Senator and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, meanwhile, was critical of the Obama administration for what he saw as inconsistencies in its statements on Syria and for seeking congressional authorization for military strikes.

Speaking Saturday morning to Sen. Angus King on 560 WGAN Newsradio in Portland, Cohen said the administration has talked of "pinprick" strikes publicly but has also made private assurances to hawkish lawmakers who want the U.S. to help change the dynamics in Syria.

"And this kind of open discussion of inconsistency in terms of objectives has undermined, I think, any support that the president might have," said Cohen, a Maine Republican who headed the Pentagon for four years during the Clinton administration.

Asked by King about President Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization, Cohen said he thought that was a mistake. Instead, Cohen said Obama should have consulted with congressional leaders, made a robust case to intelligence committee members and then exercised his authority under the War Powers Act.

(Continued on page 2)

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