Sens. Susan Collins, Angus King, and Rep. Pingree toured BIW facilities and participated in the keel-laying ceremony for the future USS Harvey C. Barnum, Jr. alongside Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree joined Acting U.S. Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker in touring Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard facilities Tuesday.

The group also participated in a keel laying ceremony, which marks the start of construction of the future USS Harvey C. Barnum Jr.

The future USS Harvey C. Barnum Jr., will be an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, named for a retired Marine Corps Colonel who earned the Medal of Honor for valor during the Vietnam War. On December 18, 1965, Barnum took command of a rifle company after its commander had been killed, reorganized it for defense, and successfully evacuated, according to a statement from Collins. He was later named acting assistant secretary of the Navy.

Collins said the ceremony, in which Barnum and his wife, Martha Hill, participated,  was one of two “truly inspiring events,” the second being touring BIW facilities with Harker.

From left, Martha Hill, sponsor of DDG 124, Col. Harvey C. Barnum, Jr., namesake and BIW Welder Marty Fish, authenticate the keel of DDG 124 by striking welding sparks to the inscribed keel plate. DENNIS GRIGGS

“As always, I was impressed with the extraordinary work that is done by the men and women of BIW who build the best ships in the world,” said Collins. “I was also struck with how the shipyard has overcome the tremendous challenges of the last year.”

Collins said some areas of the shipyard’s production efficiency has improved by 90% since experiencing production delays worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and a nine-week strike by the shipyard’s largest union, Local S6, last summer.

“Last summer wasn’t such a wonderful time between the union and BIW,” said Pingree, but added shipyard management and union leadership have since come together to improve the shipyard’s production speed.

“From the keel laying ceremony for the future USS Harvey C. Barnum Jr. to conversations with the shipyard’s leaders and employees, today’s visits to BIW … highlighted the skill and dedication of Maine’s shipbuilders,” said King. “I’m grateful for the acting secretary’s visit, and I am committed to working with him and the [Biden] Administration to strengthen our national defense and maximize the talents of our shipbuilders.”

Martha Hill, sponsor of DDG 124, Col. Harvey C. Barnum, Jr., namesake and BIW Welder Marty Fish, after authenticating the keel. DENNIS GRIGGS

While the shipyard works to overcome production delays and hire more shipbuilders, the lawmakers reiterated their desire to see a larger Navy budget and another shipbuilding contract for BIW.

“The Maine Delegation will be working very hard to help in Washington, and one of our top priorities will be to ensure that there is another multi-year contract for the construction of (Arleigh Burke-class destroyers) in order to keep a steady work flow, so that we can maintain a skilled workforce,” said Collins.

King singled out the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — “the workhorse of the Navy” and the primary type of ship constructed at Bath Iron Works — as a type of warship that would further aid in growing the Navy.

Collins, King and Pingree, alongside Rep. Jared Golden and four Mississippi lawmakers, expressed this message in a letter to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense last month.

“We write to express our strong support for a robust Navy shipbuilding budget, including funding for the continued procurement of Large Surface Combatants, and urge you to endorse unambiguously the long-standing and congressionally mandated requirement for a larger Navy fleet,” the lawmakers wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks.

The delegates have said the Navy’s current 298-ship fleet is far smaller than other global powers, such as China, which boasts a 350-ship naval fleet.

“In the era of great-power competition, a stronger U.S. Navy capable of projecting power around the world is necessary to ensure America’s national and economic security during peacetime as well as to defeat our adversaries should deterrence fail,” the lawmakers wrote last month. “Due to the long lead times necessary to properly procure and resource a larger fleet, attention must be paid to this critical issue immediately.”

Former president Trump frequently touted his 355-ship goal for the Navy during his tenure, but President Biden hasn’t yet made his intentions for the naval fleet clear, leaving lawmakers and shipbuilding industries with little assurance.

The shipyard has also expressed its need for another multi-year shipbuilding contract recently. The company has a backlog of 11 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and one Zumwalt-class destroyer to build in the next six years, according to BIW President Dirk Lesko, but the company needs additional ships to work on while it waits for the Navy to develop its next generation of warship.

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