Editorial: Ship Shape

Posted July 26, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.

The Navy’ s decision to build only two of its next generation destroyers has raised concerns about the workload at Bath Iron Works. Sustaining the yard’ s skilled work force is necessary for both the Navy and the state economy.

The Navy announced earlier this week that it would build only two new destroyers. Originally, the Navy planned to build 32 of the Zumwalt class destroyers, which were designed to avoid detection and to maneuver closer to shore than the Arleigh Burke destroyers they were meant to replace. That was downscaled to seven and now two.

Three years ago, the Navy proposed to build all the destroyers at only one shipyard — either BIW or Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. Senators from both states convinced the Navy that a one-shipyard plan left it vulnerable and it agreed to split the work. BIW is scheduled to build the first Zumwalt destroyer and Ingalls the second. The yards were then to split the work on future vessels.

Although the Senate included continued funding for the destroyers in its defense budget, the House did not. The costs for the first two ships had already escalated significantly, perhaps by as much as $4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A Navy spokesman suggested that the high cost of the ships contributed to the decision to halt their construction. Analysts also questioned the practicality of the Zumwalt, which needed to be close to shore to fire guns, rather than missiles.

The question for the Navy and the shipyard is what boats to build instead. Many have suggested that the Navy return to the Arleigh Burke destroyers, the last of which BIW is now building. Equipped with more modern equipment, these ships can be made more efficient and capable. Navy Times suggested that most of this work would go to BIW because Ingalls is working on other naval vessels and is still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

These ships cost less to build, a benefit to the Navy. But that is a downside to the shipyards because construction requires less manpower than needed to build a Zumwalt. A further downside is that many of the components of the Arleigh Burke destroyers are no longer being made because the Navy was winding down construction of these ships. Restarting the program could cost more than $2 billion because production of these components would need to begin anew.

This situation provides a caution for the Navy. If naval vessel construction is significantly slowed down, the service will lose capabilities it will need in the future. Once a shipyard is closed or converts to commercial construction, it is very had to go back to building military ships. Closure or significant downsizing of a shipyard would eliminate a highly specialized work force that could not be easily recreated if the Navy decides to build many new ships in the future.

In this situation, preserving military readiness and shipbuilding jobs go hand-in-hand.

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