BRUNSWICK — Defense experts on Tuesday agreed that, in general, President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of a shift in defense strategy appears to bode well for the U.S. Navy and shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works. All noted that their assessment could change as more specific details about the president’s plan emerge.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said the administration has offered “three strong commitments” that will benefit shipbuilding. Those commitments include maintaining the industrial shipbuilding base, maintaining a high level of combat capability and refocusing the military on the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

The Navy would play an everincreasing role in the military under the new strategy, according to Retired Navy Adm. Gregory Johnson of Harpswell, former commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa and commander in chief of Allied ( NATO) Forces Southern Europe. Johnson also served on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“On the whole, (the shift) bodes well for the Navy, and in that sense it bodes well for BIW because they’re the Navy’s premier shipbuilding yard for surface combatants,” Johnson said.

Still, in a speech this morning at the U. S. Surface Navy Association’s national symposium in Virginia, Collins expressed concern that the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan might not be sufficient in the long term to maintain its cruiser-destroyer force — or to maintain the current skilled shipbuilding work force.

On Thursday, Obama announced a new defense strategy for the armed forces designed to cut costs while maintaining “the best-trained, bestled, best-equipped military in history.”

The plan would downsize ground forces, and focus less on Europe and more on the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

The “ leaner” military would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from planned Pentagon spending over the next decade, the Associated Press reported, but details of those cuts will not be revealed until Obama’s 2013 defense budget is submitted to Congress in February.

Without those details, Collins said it’s difficult to determine the actual impact of the new strategy on the Navy or BIW — although she said it appears the Army and Marine Corps will bear the brunt of the cuts.

But she said the new plan “does offer three strong commitments that affect shipbuilding.”

First, Obama proposes an increased focus on the Asia- Pacific region — “ in other words, China” — as the area of highest strategic priority, which Collins said is “good news for the Navy and, thus, good news for BIW because the only practical way for our country to project strength in the Pacific region is using our Navy.”

Obama was also “ pretty clear” about his commitment to maintaining the industrial shipbuilding base, Collins said, and to “maintaining a high level of combat capability.”

These commitments come on the heels of other good news for the shipyard, including passage of a fiscal year 2012 defense appropriations bill that Collins said funded shipbuilding programs “to 99 percent,” demonstrating a commitment by Congress to the shipbuilding industrial base and “a combat-capable surface Navy.”

“We are continuing to reverse the trend (from the 2000s) when shipbuilding averaged a meager six new starts per year,” Collins said. “Under the Navy’s five-year projections from last year, we should average 11 new ship construction starts for the next four years, and that would be good news for BIW.”

Collins also noted contracts awarded last fall for two of the futuristic DDG- 1000 destroyers, as well as ongoing work on the restarted Arleigh Burke DDG-51 line of destroyers.

In September, the Navy awarded BIW a $1.825 billion contract to build the second and third ships in the futuristic DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer program. Also that month, BIW secured a $680 million contract to build the next Arleigh Burke- class destroyer, with a $665 million commitment toward a second destroyer in the restarted DDG- 51 line assured when Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 in December.

“Bath has proven itself to be the more efficient and costeffective shipyard and that’s really good news,” Collins said Tuesday. “I don’t see how the Department of Defense can undo those contracts. Those contracts have actually been awarded and signed.”

A robust naval presence

Johnson, a Harpswell resident and four-star admiral, said Tuesday that the president’s strategy is “ a slight geo-strategic shift from the rather extensive land operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the western Pacific, where the Navy will play an ever-increasing role.

“I certainly support it,” Johnson said. “If you look at the kinds of things the American economy thrives on, it’s selling consumer products to a growing middle class. That’s what made our country great and made our country grow to a huge middle class … over the next 25 years, we’re told, there will be 2 billion people joining the ranks of the middle class, with a huge appetite for electronics. Most of them are located in Asia — China — and other pockets of the developing world … that region is going to become increasingly important to our economic well- being and that’s ultimately where our power comes from, our economic well-being.”

In addition, he said, China is “a rising power, economically and militarily.”

The shift “will require a robust naval presence,” Johnson said. Furthermore, the Navy continues to conduct “presence missions,” showing support for allies “from Korea to Japan to the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand … we’re even developing closer and closer relationships with Vietnam and … Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton visited Burma — Myanmar — for the first time. And we’re developing a strong working relationship with India, which brings us all the way around to Southeast Asia again.”

Budget cuts and strategy shifts come with risks, Johnson said, noting, for example, that “ if the euro tanks, it could mean we’d have to make bigger draconian cuts to defense.”

But he added that the administration must address the budget deficit “in a systemic manner.”

"On the whole, (the shift) bodes well for the Navy, and in that sense it bodes well for BIW because they’re the Navy’s premier shipbuilding yard for surface combatants,” Johnson said.

Senior Navy analyst Jay Korman of the Washington, D. C.- based consulting firm The Avascent Group, said Tuesday that he viewed Obama’s strategy announcement as “generally neutral to positive” for the Navy and BIW.

Like Collins, however, Korman said that until more specific budget details are revealed, the overall impact remains to be seen.

“What’s positive about it is, as we pivot toward Asia, one of the key components of the strategy is that by necessity, sea power becomes ( more important),” Korman said. “With the war on terror, no matter how important a support function the Navy had, at end of day, all it had was a support function.”

Korman said it remains to be seen whether that translates into increased spending on shipbuilding, or simply preserves those dollars while other areas are cut.

Shortfall

While early analyses of the administration’s 10-year-plan for the military were generally positive, Collins today raised concerns about the adequacy of the Navy’s cruiser destroyer force as outlined in the Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan.

Speaking at the U.S. Surface Navy Association’s national symposium in Virginia, Collins said, “At its worst, the cruiser-destroyer force will be fully 25 percent below the required number — making this shortfall the largest and longest shortfall of any class of ships.”

She called for the administration to eliminate or “significantly mitigate” the gap if it is to “maintain high-end combat capability.”

Collins pointed to “potential flashpoints” such as the Philippines, Taiwan and North Korea, and then spoke of China, where the Peoples Liberation Army Navy “continues to grow its fleet’s capability by building better and more modern classes of ships …”

Also on Tuesday, Collins questioned whether “building an average of 1.5 destroyers per year is adequate to preserve the skills and the number of production workers down the road. (But) in the short term we are in an excellent position because we have all the of the DDG-1000s.”

As a member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Collins will review the administration’s strategy and its budget implications. She said Tuesday that she looks forward to reviewing “how expressed commitments to shipbuilding, high-end combat capability and a renewed focus in Asia are translated” into the 2013 budget.

 

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