BATH, Maine — Sen. Olympia Snowe has a vivid recollection of a December 2004 call from then-Navy Secretary Gordon England. She was in Maine two days before Christmas when she said England told her the Navy didn’t need two shipyards building destroyers. Bath Iron Works needed to go.
The Navy ultimately lost a bruising behind-the-scenes battle with Congress.
A visit by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Monday reaffirmed that the Navy has reversed course. Mabus, who hails from Mississippi, home to Bath’s chief shipbuilding competitor, said it’s vital for the Navy to keep both shipyards open to maintain competition.
“If you lose that trained work force, it’s really hard if not impossible to get it back,” Mabus said. “For us to have the ships we need as a Navy, and for us to have the ships we need as a nation, we’ve got to have enough shipbuilding capacity.”
Mabus toured General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works along with soon-to-be-closed Brunswick Naval Air Station and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the Maine-New Hampshire border in his first visit outside the Washington area since he was confirmed last month.
In Brunswick, Snowe and Rep. Chellie Pingree pressed Mabus to ensure that the commissary remains open to serve retirees after the base closes in 2011.
At Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, the agenda focused on the need to modernize some of the buildings at the nation’s oldest public shipyard. The shipyard, which overhauls nuclear submarines, is more than 200 years old, and many of its structures are in need of repair.
Sen. Susan Collins, who joined Pingree and Snowe in Kittery, said the money for such improvements usually comes from congressional earmarks because the Navy fails to budget for upgrades and maintenance.
In Bath, Mabus was taking a well-trod path.
He was the latest in a line of military officials to visit Bath. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited last month. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen was there in April. Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead stopped by in October. And former Navy Secretary Donald Winter visited a year ago.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the Navy now views Bath Iron Works as its best shipbuilder.
“It’s going to get more attention because it’s viewed as a center of excellence,” Thompson said.
England never retracted his statement about closing Bath Iron Works and eliminating more than 5,000 good-paying jobs, Snowe said. But the Pentagon ultimately gave up the effort to close it, Snowe said.
Snowe said the Navy made a false argument about excess shipbuilding capacity at a time when the Pentagon was directing money toward the war in Iraq.
“I don’t think there was ever a rationale for excess capacity,” Snowe said. “In the shipbuilding arena, we had too few shipyards and more ships to be built. We need more ships than we have today to meet our current and future requirements.”
Snowe said that during her discussions with England she pointed out that Hurricane Ivan tracked east of Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi in 2004. A year later, Hurricane Katrina damaged Ingalls and scattered its work force. The shipyard is still recovering.
Snowe said there’s no way to eliminate Bath Iron Works or the larger Ingalls shipyard and still achieve the Navy’s goal of a 313-ship fleet.
Mabus agreed during confirmation hearings. He said the number of shipyards is “very small” and that “we don’t have any excess capacity.”