Sen. Susan Collins pressed Navy leaders on their plans for the next generation of combat ships and commitment to the stability of the shipbuilding industry at a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last week.

During the hearing, Collins questioned Navy leadership on the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Collins said the Navy’s presence in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean is vital to the security of the United States and its allies in the region, particularly in the face of growing Russian aggression.

“Based on increased operations in the Mediterranean, as well as Russian maritime activity in the Baltics and in the Atlantic, do you believe that we have a sufficient number of ships in the Atlantic fleet?” she asked, according to a video recording of the hearing.

“There is always a strategic balance that needs to be struck,” said Adm. John Richardson, chief of Naval operations. “It’s a continuing conversation because the strategic environment is changing. But what we have seen, and we can show you the numbers, is a steadily rising commitment to naval power in the European Theater. … We sent the Truman Carrier Strike Group north of the Arctic Circle up into the North Atlantic for the first time since 1991 and relearned a lot of lessons up there.”

Collins, who serves on the Senate Appropriations and Intelligence committees, also pressed the Navy for its plans for the next generation of surface combat ships and expressed her concerns about taking on a new ship design too quickly.

In the early 2000s, the Navy proposed building 32 highly advanced stealth destroyers at Bath Iron Works, giving the shipyard’s workforce hope for years of work. The shipyard launched an expensive conversion to focus on production of the Zumwalt-class ships, but as the years wore on, the number of ships ordered was slashed. And then slashed again. Ultimately, the Navy ordered just three ships – the second of which the Navy recently commissioned in San Diego.

The Navy ultimately decided to switch back to Arleigh Burke-class destroyer production. The shipyard had to relearn how to build the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers using the tools it had brought in to build Zumwalts.

Rear Adm. Ronald A. Boxall, the director of surface warfare, said he expects the Navy to order 10 to 12 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers before moving on to the next generation destroyer, according to an interview in the Surface Navy Association newsletter.

Collins said the Navy has moved ahead quickly with plans since last year for a new lead ship now expected in 2025 – only a few years after the end of the current multiyear contract for Arleigh Burkes.

“I do want to express some concerns about starting down the path to a new hull until the requirements have been thoroughly identified and validated, and (the) industry has had the opportunity to help the Navy determine what truly is achievable,” Collins said. “I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on how budgeting and planning for the next generation of large surface combatants will address that need to ensure stability and predictability in the industrial base.”

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer said the Navy has to get the best value for the dollar, but also weigh the stability and health of the industrial base at all times.

He pointed to an intermediate step with a new class of frigate, which he called “a fascinating exercise in that we’re looking at improving hull design.”

The military budget for 2020 released by the White House in March included $5.8 billion in funding for three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

The 2020 budget also included $1.3 billion in funding for the first of the new frigates. Bath Iron Works is one of five shipyards currently competing to build the frigates. The Navy is expected to award a contract for as many as 20 frigates next year.

“We really are going to industry and saying what do you have that we can adapt and adopt with minimal cycles of change, and that we’re going to have quite a robust competition with five hulls being put forward,” Spencer said. “What we learn from that I think is also going to transition to the large surface combatant, and we will do this on a budgeting manner that will take into account the health of the industry to make sure that we don’t find ourselves in a gapping mode.”

“One of the things that we’re doing differently … is to bring industry into the discussion of the requirements so that we’re not coming off with something that will just be impossible to invent, and then build, and then integrate,” Richardson added.


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