Defense chief visits Bath Iron Works

Posted May 22, 2009, at 3:50 p.m.

BATH, Maine — The Pentagon’s decision to build all three of the Navy’s next-generation destroyers at Maine’s Bath Iron Works assures plenty of work for shipbuilders for “a considerable number of years into the future,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.

Visiting a shipyard for the first time, Gates toured an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in the final stages of construction — the Wayne E. Meyer — and met with shipbuilders and sailors who’ll serve aboard the ship on a helicopter landing pad at the ship’s fantail.

Gates said the Obama administration’s budget aims to give the Navy what it needs while bringing stability to the Navy’s shipbuilding infrastructure.

“There’s plenty of money in the budget to keep this shipyard busy for a considerable number of years into the future,” Gates told reporters after the event.

The Navy plans to build only three next-generation Zumwalt-class destroyers, the follow-up to the Arleigh Burke, but all of them will be built at Bath Iron Works.

The stealthy Zumwalt has faced critics who’ve questioned the military necessity of the ship, and the Navy apparently agreed. After building the three, shipbuilders will revert back to building the older destroyers, which unlike the new destroyer, can be configured for ballistic missile defense thanks to their phased-array radar and powerful computers. Gates praised the ships’ “versatility.”

It’s rare for a defense secretary to visit Bath Iron Works. The last time it happened was when Defense Secretary William Cohen of Maine attended a christening of the Winston S. Churchill in which his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, served as the ship’s sponsor.

Before that, the last defense secretary to visit was Thomas S. Gates, said Jim DeMartini, a shipyard spokesman. Appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gates served 14 months starting in 1959. A cruiser, the USS Thomas S. Gates, later was built in Bath.

Friday’s visit by the defense secretary came at the request of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who has lobbied for more contracts for the 5,600 shipbuilders who work at Bath Iron Works.

“Whatever the Navy wants, Bath Iron Works is ready to deliver,” Collins said Friday, to the applause of shipbuilders. “This is a great shipyard.”

Gates’ visit came on the same day President Obama granted the Pentagon new power to rein in wasteful defense spending.

Obama said the weapons acquisition overhaul bill, which passed unanimously in both the House and Senate this week, will crack down on defense programs with huge cost overruns and increase competition for contracts.

Gates welcomed the bill, saying the Pentagon is working to do a better job in terms of making requirements for weapon systems, making better cost estimates, negotiating better contracts and building better prototypes, among other things.

“Many of the features that are the most important elements of the bill the president just signed are things we started working on, and we welcome help,” he said.

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