The Department of Defense has proposed cutting the number of Arleigh Burke destroyers to be built for the Navy by 40 percent over a five-year period, potentially affecting work at the Bath Iron Works shipyard.

The Defense recommendation is referenced in a Dec. 16 memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget that was first reported by defense industry trade publications Defense News and Breaking Defense. It says the Defense Department recommends reducing the number of destroyers built between fiscal years 2021 and 2025 from 12 ships to seven, a shipbuilding budget cut of about $9.4 billion.

BIW and Huntington Ingalls Industries in Mississippi are the only two shipyards that bid on contracts to build Arleigh Burkes. BIW spokesman David Hench said the Bath shipyard typically does not comment on early-stage budget proposals.

The OMB memo pertains to what’s known as the Future Years Defense Program, which covers from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2025. It says the Navy has proposed buying a total of 42 warships over that period at a cost of $111.8 billion.

The Navy has indicated it may reduce the shipbuilding budget even further to fund higher-priority projects, according to the memo. It also says the Navy is considering decommissioning an 12 warships to save money. Overall, the Navy would be left with a 287-warship fleet in fiscal year 2025 – smaller than its existing fleet of 293 ships.

“This is a significant potential impact on BIW, because the OMB memo implies the Navy is planning in its 2021 budget to cut the construction of 12 ships over the (five-year period) and retire another 12 early,” said defense industry analyst Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The memo also suggests the Navy is moving away from sustaining its previous plan to build two to three (Arleigh Burke-class destroyers) per year and instead buy one to two per year.”

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers are the primary ship manufactured at BIW, owned by General Dynamics. The most recently built destroyer, the future USS Daniel Inouye, was christened in June, making it the 37th ship of its class built by the shipyard.

The proposal to cut production of Arleigh Burkes is not the final word on the matter. A Navy spokesman told Defense News that the proposal was related to a budget that has not been finalized. Ultimately, Congress decides how much money will be spent each year on Navy shipbuilding.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, said in a joint statement that the proposal would signify an “abrupt reversal” from the Navy’s previously stated goal of growing its fleet.

“Congress determines the authorization and funding for Navy shipbuilding,” the senators said. “Through our positions on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, we have worked hard to ensure that BIW, (Portsmouth Naval Shipyard), and other defense industry employers in Maine have the resources they need to continue to support our military. That work continues.”

Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd Congressional District, said cutting the Navy’s fleet goes against Trump’s campaign pledges.

“The president campaigned on building a strong, 350-ship American Navy, a goal that is necessary for our national security,” the Democrat said. “The White House should do its part to follow through on this commitment to the American people. While these reports from within the administration are concerning, it’s important to remember that Congress, not the White House or the Department of Defense, ultimately sets the nation’s funding priorities.”

The proposed shift to a smaller Navy fleet would be a major change from the service’s most recent force structure assessment, which had a goal of increasing the fleet to a total of 355 ships by 2035. A Dec. 20 background report from the Congressional Research Service implied that BIW could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a surge in Navy ship production.

“The areas where the Navy would likely have to adjust ‘tooling’ to answer demand for a larger fleet would likely be in Virginia-class attack submarines and large surface combatants, the DDG-51 (Arleigh Burke-class) guided missile destroyers – two ship classes likely to surge if the Navy gets funding to build to 355 ships,” Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley said in the report.

Stackley said maintaining a skilled workforce would be a key factor in reaching the 355-ship goal, both in terms of shipyard workers and critical supply-chain vendors who provide equipment for ship construction. He suggested the shipbuilding surge would help avoid budget cuts and other events that could result in workforce layoffs.

News about the proposed shipbuilding reduction comes on the heels of the U.S. Senate’s passage of a defense spending bill for 2020 that includes $5.1 billion to build three Arleigh Burke destroyers, which BIW can bid on.

The Bath shipyard has ongoing contracts for 11 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, some of which are under construction.

The defense spending bill also provides $156 million to fund completion of the Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers, which BIW builds. In the early 2000s, the Navy hoped to build 32 highly advanced Zumwalts, which cost $7 billion per ship and are packed with the latest technology and a redesigned body that makes them appear much smaller on radar.

The Navy later reduced its order to only three ships, citing concerns about cost overruns. The last in the class, the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, is now under construction at BIW.

Collins and King noted that the recent spending bill also includes a $390 million increase in advance procurement to BIW for a down payment on an additional ship next fiscal year, as well as funding for infrastructure investments that will allow the shipyard to prepare for future contracts.

“BIW is home to the best shipbuilders in the world, and this funding will help them stay competitive far into the future,” they said.

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