Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are formally objecting to a Navy proposal to significantly reduce its shipbuilding program, a step that could potentially harm future contracts and employment at Bath Iron Works – one of Maine’s largest employers.

King and Collins made their objections public Tuesday in a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday. Both Maine senators serve on committees with significant influence over Navy shipbuilding and policy decisions, with Collins serving on the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee and King on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We were deeply concerned to read recent reports that the Department of Defense may propose significant reductions to planned shipbuilding procurement in its fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request to be submitted to Congress in the coming weeks,” King and Collins said. “We write to express our strong support for a 355-ship Navy and to urge continued support from the department for a robust shipbuilding budget”

In a memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget obtained by the Portland Press Herald, the Department of Defense recommended reducing the number of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers built for the Navy between 2021 and 2025 from 12 ships to seven, or a shipbuilding budget cut of about $9.4 billion.

Bath Iron Works is one of two shipyards – competitor Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, is the other – that build DDG-51 destroyers, and the warships have been a longtime staple for the yard located on the Kennebec River.

The guided-missile destroyer is regarded as the workhorse of the Navy fleet. With destroyers deployed around the globe at any given time, DDG-51s are often among the first warships sent to hot spots – including to the Persian Gulf as tensions rise with Iran – but also provide front-line defense against short- and intermediate-range missiles with their AEGIS ballistic missile defense systems.

“We appreciate the efforts of our congressional delegation to maintain ongoing support for our Navy and to work toward a shipbuilding program that provides for the country’s growing security needs while providing stability for our shipyard,” David Hench, a spokesman for General Dynamics-owned BIW, said in a statement Tuesday. “BIW shipbuilders remain focused on the timely and affordable delivery of ships and continually improving our processes to best meet the evolving needs of our Navy customer.”

Collins and King, both of whom also serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, point out in their letter to Esper that in 2017 Congress passed and President Trump signed into law a national policy of achieving a 355-ship Navy.

“Three other congressionally mandated, independent studies similarly called for a Navy much larger than the current 293 deployable battle force ships in the fleet today,” King and Collins wrote. “Contrary to this established policy and identified national security need, media reports suggest the Department (of Defense) may propose a budget plan that would actually result in a smaller fleet in 2025 than we have today.”

The Navy proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget is only that – a proposal – and is guaranteed to face opposition from members of Congress. Political and defense acquisition experts predict any effort by the Defense Department to cut the number of Navy destroyers will face stiff opposition in Congress.

Loren Thompson, an expert in Navy shipbuilding who is chief operating officer at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said the Navy faces two major problems: insufficient funds to build the warships it needs and potential adversaries who are developing increasingly capable anti-ship technology.

Thompson said there is often talk about the Navy developing more unmanned ships – a strategy Capitol Hill has yet to embrace – or building more small, less-sophisticated vessels and fewer large, complex and fully-capable warships.

Such a shift, at least in the near-term, could be problematic for BIW, which Thompson said “is very good at building a certain kind of vessel” but does not build smaller or unmanned ships. The only other ships constructed at BIW are  Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 “stealth” destroyers, with work on the third and final ship nearing completion.

“This is a negotiating process between the Navy and the White House Budget Office, and even after this is resolved, it will be a negotiating process between the budget office and Congress,” Thompson said. “In the end, the size of the Navy shipbuilding budget is always determined by political forces. And next year’s budget will be no different than past ones.”

There are always elements of politics and regionalism in federal budgets as members of Congress fight to protect defense contractors important to their local economies. BIW, for instance, is one of the largest private employers in Maine, with 6,700 workers today and plans to hire 1,000 additional workers within the next year.

Collins serves on the Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, which, in conjunction with its House counterpart, is responsible for deciding how much money the Navy receives each fiscal year. Members of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, which has been fiercely defensive of the Pascagoula shipyard, also serve on budget-writing and military oversight committees.

In fact, it was a member of Mississippi’s delegation, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who authored the language that put the 355-ship Navy fleet goal into law in 2017.

“The Navy’s goal of 355 ships is the law of the land, and I am committed to working with President Trump to ensure our shipbuilders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast have the resources they need to remain the premier supplier of Navy ships,” Wicker, who serves alongside King on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Destroyers have been the backbone of our Navy’s fleet for decades, and I do not see that changing any time soon.”

In the Office of Management and Budget memo, the Navy also indicated it may reduce its shipbuilding budget even further to fund higher priority projects, and said it is considering decommissioning 12 warships to save money. Any reductions have the potential to significantly impact BIW, which also has contracts to maintain destroyers and is competing to build the next-generation Navy frigate.

In their letter, Collins and King raise concerns about how the Navy’s proposed cuts could impact the “shipbuilding industrial base.” They also point out that, ultimately, it will be Congress that decides how much money will be spent on Navy shipbuilding.

“We will continue to support a growing fleet in order to protect our national security and ensure our national prosperity as threats around the world continue to grow,” Collins and King told Esper in the letter. “As you continue to develop and finalize the department’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, we urge you to reverse course from cutbacks to shipbuilding programs that may be under deliberation and to support a 355-ship Navy.”

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