Build more ships.

Sen. Susan Collins has spent years fighting to authorize and fund defense contracts that keep thousands of Maine shipbuilders employed at Bath Iron Works. Now, as the ranking Republican member of the powerful Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, experts say Collins is well positioned to bring more defense dollars to the state as she pursues one of her top priorities: expanding the Naval fleet to keep up with China’s forces.

“I’m always reminded of a very common saying within the Navy: ‘Quantity has a quality all of its own,’” Collins told The Times Record Thursday. “Numbers matter.”

There is broad consensus within the defense industry that the United States needs to expand its Naval fleet of just under 300 ships, which lags behind China’s growing force of about 340, according to Craig Hooper, a national security consultant who has written about Naval affairs for a number of publications, including his blog NextNavy. The Navy’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, released last April, calls for a force of between 321 and 404 manned ships and up to 204 large unmanned vehicles.

Politicians, military leaders and other industry experts disagree on the specifics of how to expand the fleet. At points in recent years, the Department of Defense has pushed to decommission dozens of ships and scale down production of large-surface combatants like the Bath-built Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyer in order to devote more resources to the development of new technologies, including unmanned vehicles.

“It’s like high fashion: Every season there’s going to be something new,” Hooper said of the lengthy and sometimes fraught process of designing warships. “Is it always necessary? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. The trick for our Naval and political leaders like Susan Collins will be in trying to distinguish the reality from the hype.”


Collins, who last week officially took over as the top Republican on the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, will wield significant power to advance her own shipbuilding philosophy, which calls for steady production of current-generation ships and a more conservative timeline for new technologies so as not to repeat recent, high-profile failures like the Zumwalt-class destroyer and Freedom-class littoral combat ship.

“We have gotten in trouble — and an example would be on the littoral combat ship — when we start building before the design … is largely completed,” said Collins, who like Sen. Angus King has encouraged the Navy to include shipyards like BIW, private think tanks and subcontractors throughout the process of developing the DDG(X) destroyer. “We need to continue to build the Arleigh Burke-class while we are designing the next generation destroyers.”

To support her shipbuilding goals and the thousands of Mainers whose livelihoods depend on BIW, Collins said she will prioritize securing funding for shipyard upgrades that will improve workers’ quality of life and attract more skilled labor to the industry. She cited the need for better transportation and cafeteria options as well as possible day care offerings.

As a leader on the subcommittee that oversees the DOD’s annual budget, Collins is in a prime position to bring additional defense dollars to Maine, according to Hooper.

He pointed to Collins’ predecessor on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, former Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who for years leveraged his position to secure millions of dollars’ worth of projects for his home state. In 2018, when Shelby took over as the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Alabama saw a 50% increase in defense contract spending, compared to just a 13% increase nationally.

Hooper predicted defense contractors could follow the money by setting up shop in Maine, bringing new jobs with them.

“If you are a defense contractor and you are not trying to figure out how to maximize your investments in Maine or to get a footprint in Maine, you’re not doing defense contracting,” he said.

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