A report that the Navy may slash warship construction and delay production of the next generation of destroyers added to worries for shipbuilders already bracing for lean times at Maine’s Bath Iron Works.

The Navy budget proposal would provide funds to build only four ships in 2006, compared with nine planned for 2005, and the plan would delay production of the new stealth destroyers, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Bath Iron Works already faces uncertainty as it prepares for a transition to the so-called DD-X destroyer.

“I can tell you that any delay in the DD-X program could be devastating,” said Mike Keenan, president of the Machinist Union’s Local S-6, which represents more than 4,300 shipbuilders at the Bath yard.

The proposal cited by the newspaper reflects a trend away from big-ticket items like warships, tanks and fighter jets in favor of more troops, Special Operations forces and intelligence gathering.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has yet to sign off. President Bush will not submit his defense budget to Congress until February.

Opponents of the shipbuilding cuts are expected to include congressional delegations from states where the six Navy shipbuilders are located.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, urged defense officials Tuesday to find the necessary resources to fully fund the shipbuilding projects to avoid weakening the nation’s fleet and threatening the shipbuilding industry.

“As our nation continues to fight the global war on terror, now is clearly not the time to be underfunding our critical military infrastructure by diminishing the Navy’s fleet size,” she said.

Industry officials predict that the proposal, if left unchecked, would cripple shipbuilders. The proposal calls for delaying construction of the DD-X until 2007 from a previous target of 2005.

The DD-X is being jointly developed by Bath Iron Works and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi.

Cynthia L. Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association, characterized the budget proposal as a “desperate cry for help” from a Navy that is falling further behind on its fleet goal. The Navy currently has 297 ships, and the number is dropping, she said.

As proposed, the budget could harm the nation’s shipbuilding infrastructure, Brown said.

“We’re not only going to see our Navy fleet sink – and quickly – we’re going to lose the industrial capability to build a fleet for today or tomorrow,” she said from her office in Washington.

The problem is that the Navy is succumbing to pressure from the White House and Defense Department, and pressure must be applied to boost ship construction spending before the budget is submitted to Congress, she said.

A spokesman for General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works’ parent company, declined to comment on the Washington Post report.

“That’s all just speculation,” Kendell Pease said. “I don’t think anybody’s seen the real budget yet.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Armed Services Committee, cautioned that it’s still early in the process. And she said Tuesday that she will work to ensure that shipbuilding programs are not jeopardized both for the sake of the Navy and for the sake of the shipbuilding industry.

“We can’t risk losing the skilled labor infrastructure that we have painstakingly built in our shipyards,” she said.

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