Sen. Collins criticized the Navy’s proposed reduction of the number of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, such as the USS Thomas Hudner, between 2021 and 2025. Collins said the proposed cut runs contrary to the 355-ship Navy fleet goal, which was backed by the Trump administration. Photo courtesy of Bath Iron Works 

BATH — At a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last Thursday, Sen. Susan Collins pressed Navy leaders on why they proposed cuts to the Navy shipbuilding budget, which, if approved, could eliminate work for Bath Iron Works, one of Maine’s largest employers.

Collins, who serves on the Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, said she was alarmed by the proposed reduction of Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) Flight III destroyers because it would weaken national security. The cut would also run contrary to the 355-ship Navy fleet goal, which the Trump administration has backed and Congress made law through the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

“It’s important that we continue to add Flight III capability to the fleet while also avoiding these … peaks and valleys in our industrial base that end up squandering the expertise and training of skilled workers at shipyards like Bath Iron Works,” said Collins. “I would urge you to avoid this abrupt change in the number of ships that you plan to procure.”

In December 2019 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.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are the primary ship class produced and serviced by BIW. Considered the workhorse of the Navy, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are built only by BIW and its main competitor, Mississippi-based Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding. The ships, which come with a $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion price tag, measure more than 500 feet in length and carry a crew of roughly 300 sailors. The most recent destroyer, the future USS Daniel Inouye, was christened in June 2019 and is the 37th ship of its class to be built by the shipyard.

Thomas Moldy, acting secretary of the Navy, called Arleigh Burkes “a critical part of our future force” but said the proposed cuts are necessary to prevent additional costs associated with increasing the number of sailors to prevent crews from being overworked.

“As you know all too well, a couple years ago we had some horrible tragedies on a couple of these ships largely because they were being overworked,” said Modley. “We didn’t have enough people on them, so we’re trying to bring up the number of crew members, and that costs money.”

In 2017 both the USS William Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain suffered fatal collisions off the coast of Japan and Singapore, respectively. Seven U.S. sailors were killed in the USS Fitzgerald collision and 10 sailors died in the USS McCain collision, which ultimately contributed to the firing  of Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the commander of the Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet. Both ships were Arleigh Burke-class destroyers built at Bath Iron Works. Experts later determined human error and a lack of training were likely to blame for both collisions.

There are 339,094 Navy personnel on active duty and 296 deployable ships as of March 13, 2020 according to data from the Navy.

“I think that it’s very evident where you look where our ships are deployed today that there’s stress on our sailors, there’s stress on our ships, and we need more of both,” said Collins.

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

Should the Pentagon’s recommended cuts be approved, the Navy’s warship fleet would shrink to 287 in 2025 from its existing fleet of 296 ships, but political experts have said the likelihood of the reduction passing Congress is slim.

Andrew Rudalevige, a government professor at Bowdoin College, told a Times Record reporter he suspects, “a cut to the overall fleet census will not go down well even in the White House, much less in Congress.”

“Congress has the power of the purse and the final say on spending in all areas,” said Rudalevige. “There are plenty of examples over time where legislators have approved more money for different projects than the Pentagon has requested.”

Sen. Angus King, and independant, and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden have also denounced the proposed cuts.

“At this point, we feel confident the contracted ships will continue to be built,” Pingree said during a visit to BIW in January. “There’s a real commitment to increasing the size of our Navy … and there will be congressional support for going with the plan as is.”

BIW did not return requests for comment.


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