Force projection and BIW

Defense contractor General Dynamics will be out in full force at the Surface Navy Association National Symposium in Arlington, Va., this week, highlighting some of the work being done at its Bath Iron Works facility here in Maine.

GD is one of Maine’s largest employers, through its operations at its Saco Armaments division and its 5,700-strong work force at BIW.

According to an advisory the company sent out today, GD plans to showcase the work BIW is doing on the Zumwalt class of destroyers (the next-generation vessel that the yard is currently building) and the on the Arleigh Burke class (the workhorse destroyer of the Navy).

GD said the first Zumwalt, also known as the DDG 1000, is more than 50 percent complete and is set for delivery in 2014. BIW is under contract for two Zumwalts.

And BIW has been making the Arleigh Burkes for decades, and was awarded a contract last year for another, set for delivery in 2016.

BIW’s sole customer, with few exceptions, is the U.S. Navy. The yard has been open to other opportunities over the years, always with the top rule that any new work not interfere with its Navy work. The work there ebbs and flows; depending on where a particular ship class is in the life cycle, the company may be laying off designers while hiring metal cutters, or vice versa.

Not too many years ago, BIW was in a perilous position. The Navy was considering a winner-take-all strategy for sourcing its destroyers, with a competition for the contracts that would be won either by BIW or its much-larger competitor in Pascagoula, Miss.

Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi yard — and the surrounding community. The hurricane, and increased improvements in efficiency at BIW, convinced the Navy that having a few options for sourcing destroyers was probably a good thing …

And recently, President Barack Obama released his 10-year national defense plan, in which the importance of the Asia-Pacific area was noted.

Quoting the plan, released last week:

“Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region.”

The emphasized words were written in the plan as such; not added by me. The countries to watch in the region, of course, are North Korea and China.

Another key part of the plan: “Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges.”

Again, from the plan:

“In order to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged. In these areas, sophisticated adversaries will use asymmetric capabilities, to include electronic and cyber warfare, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced air defenses, mining, and other methods, to complicate our operational calculus.”

The Navy is all about projecting power – as experts have told me in the past, the ability to park an aircraft carrier and its escorts off the coast of a hot-spot is a big military deterrent.

In late 2010, I did a story after a North Korean artillery attack over a disputed military border killed four South Koreans and wounded 18 others. Just days after the attack, a U.S. aircraft carrier and its escorts were in the region for preplanned war games.

That attack, and the subsequent arrival of the USS George Washington and its battle group, served as a reminder of the importance of a strong naval fleet.

At the time, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, suggested that such an event also demonstrated the importance of naval shipbuilding.

“The dangerous tensions on the Korean peninsula and the buildup of China of its fleet remind us that we are always going to need a strong Navy — and that means we’re always going to need a strong Bath Iron Works,” Collins told me at the time.

The Navy puts the current size of the fleet at 286 ships. Navy leadership recommends a fleet of 313 ships. Toward the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan wanted a 600-ship Navy.

Collins said in 2010 that the Armed Services Committee heard testimony from an independent, bipartisan commission that recommended a fleet of 346 ships to meet the country’s military requirements and protect its economic interests. The commission highlighted the Western Pacific as an area of concern, she said.