BATH (AP) – The Coast Guard’s commandant toured Bath Iron Works for the first time Tuesday as the Navy shipbuilder prepared to bid on the next round of cutters to be built as part of a modernization program.

The Coast Guard’s outdated fleet is in the process of an overhaul, and the Bath shipyard hopes to bid for the so-called Offshore Patrol Cutter in a few years.

Adm. Thad Allen said it was important to see what Bath has to offer. As commandant, he also serves as the Coast Guard’s chief acquisition officer.

“We are committed to full and open competition. We want the broadest array of offers,” said Allen, who toured the yard with BIW President Jeff Geiger and Sen. Susan Collins. “We’ll get the best value for the taxpayers’ money and the best capability for the Coast Guard.”

Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, hasn’t built a Coast Guard ship since the 1930s, but it bid last year on construction of Fast Response Cutters. The Bath shipyard lost to Louisiana’s Bollinger Shipyards Inc., but company officials learned a lot along the way, Collins said.

The Offshore Patrol Cutter – a much larger ship at more than 350 feet long – is a better fit for Bath because of its size and complexity, officials say. The cutters will have advanced radar and electronics, a helicopter pad and hangar, and the ability to withstand a chemical attack.

Allen’s visit came a day after shipbuilders learned that the Pentagon wants Bath Iron Works to build all three of the next-generation Zumwalt destroyers. If that comes to pass, the futuristic-looking destroyers could keep shipbuilders busy over the next several years.

Nonetheless, the shipyard remains on the hunt for additional work to supplement its Navy contracts as well as develop new markets to create stability for the company’s 5,700 workers.

“In terms of going forward, we know it’s unlikely we’re going to see the types of shipbuilding programs we’ve enjoyed since the 1970s – long runs of the same type of ships,” said spokesman Jim DeMartini. “It’s important to open our aperture and investigate what we can do for other customers.”

The proposed cutters are part of the $24 billion Deepwater modernization program that was plagued by cost overruns, design flaws and lax oversight before the Coast Guard removed Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. as project managers in 2007, opening the door to new bidders.

The Coast Guard hopes to begin production of the Offshore Patrol Cutters after the Coast Guard completes construction of the largest cutters – National Security Cutters -around 2016 or 2017,

Allen’s visit came at the request of Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Allen also visited Hodgdon Defense Composites in East Boothbay and four Coast Guard stations from South Portland to Eastport.

“The Coast Guard is in the midst of rebuilding its fleet and I’m very hopeful that Bath Iron Works could eventually be a good partner for the Coast Guard,” Collins said.

AP-ES-04-07-09 1458EDT

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