PORTLAND, Maine — A Navy proposal to award lucrative contracts for a new class of speedy warships to the builders of two competing versions could cut out Maine’s Bath Iron Works from future bidding, Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday.
The Navy plans to increase the number of littoral combat ships and to award construction contracts to shipbuilders in Alabama and Wisconsin, leaving little room for competitors, Collins said.
The Navy proposal “represents an unexpected reversal of its procurement plans” and would make it unlikely that Bath Iron Works could compete for the construction of the ships, said Collins, a Maine Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
The ships are coveted by the Navy for their speed — both versions can top 50 mph — and for their ability to operate in coastal, or littoral, waters.
Bath Iron Works originally partnered with Alabama’s Austal USA, which built one version. Wisconsin’s Marinette Marine Corp. built the other version.
The Maine shipyard later ended the Austal partnership based on the Navy’s plans to award a 10-ship contract for one version only. Bath wanted to bid on a contract for five ships, regardless of which version was selected.
Last week, the Navy floated a proposal to build both versions of the ship. Under the plan, a total of 20 ships would be split between Austal and Marinette.
The ships are key to the Navy’s goal of building of up its fleet, and the original bids from Austal and Marinette were low enough to allow the Navy to buy more ships.
“This option is good for the taxpayers because it enables us to buy more ships for the same money and allows us to lock in a lower price for all 20 ships,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement last week. “It’s good for the Navy because it gets us more ships faster and increases our flexibility, and it’s good for industry be-cause it maintains and even expands jobs at two shipyards.”
The new strategy has been met with silence by Bath Iron Works, a General Dynamics subsidiary, which traditionally builds larger destroyers but has reduced its work force in recent years because of Navy spending cuts. Spokesman Jim DeMartini had no comment Tuesday.
Bath Iron Works, which employs 5,500 shipbuilders, has been looking to supplement its traditional work with construction of Coast Guard cutters or possibly the smaller Navy ships.
It’s wrapping up a production run of Arleigh Burke destroyers and is building the first of three Zumwalt-class destroyers. Littoral combat ships are much smaller than those ships.
Austal’s ship is a 418-foot aluminum trimaran, while Marinette’s 378-foot version utilizes a single steel hull. Both ships can accommodate helicopters and “modules” for anti-submarine missions, mine removal or traditional surface warfare.
The proposed change in acquisition strategy requires congressional approval. Collins didn’t indicate Tuesday whether she would fight the proposal.