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Maine's Bath Iron Works sails into an uncertain future

When the Navy's DDG-51 destroyer program ends, Bath Iron Works in Maine will have built 34 of the warships. When the Navy's DDG-51 destroyer program ends, Bath Iron Works in Maine will have built 34 of the warships. (Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe)

BATH, Maine -- Six of the final batch of DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are under construction in the cluster of aged buildings sprawled along the banks of the Kennebec River.

As warships progress through fabrication and outfitting to final assembly here at Bath Iron Works, the 123-year-old shipyard is preparing for the end of its largest program of the modern era. But the yard still has one major Navy shipbuilding program on the horizon: the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers being designed here and at a rival shipyard to replace the Burke class.

Bath will split the DDG-1000 production work, like the design work, with its major competitor, the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., under a dual-yard arrangement approved by Congress in 2005. Still, the program's importance for Bath, which was acquired by General Dynamics Corp in 1995, can't be overstated.

"When General Dynamics bought the Bath shipyard, what they were really acquiring was a hugely valuable backlog of DDG-51 guided-missile destroyers," said Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a defense policy research firm in Arlington, Va. "Now that's coming to an end. And if its successor class isn't able to produce enough hulls, there's a real danger Bath could close."

Officials here at the shipyard won't discuss that possibility, saying only that they're focused on building the most affordable ships for their customers, primarily the Navy. But while the yard remains one of largest employers in Maine, the workforce already has dropped to about 5,800 from the post-World War II peak of 12,000 in 1991.

No one expects that Bath will build for the DDG-1000 program anywhere near the 34 destroyers it is building for the DDG-51 program. But the new destroyer is seen as vital to testing new technologies and tiding the shipyard over till the Navy launches new warship programs.

"We intend to continue to build surface combatants as they're required by the Navy in the future," said Dirk A. Lesko, the DDG-1000 program manager at Bath Iron Works. "For any business, assuring your business down the road has less to do with any single opportunity and more to do with your ability to meet your customers' requirements."

In fact, the Navy's requirements for the new Zumwalt class -- named for the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., the youngest man to serve as US chief of naval operations -- will be the most technologically challenging yet for Bath. The new destroyer will be built in 11 sections, using high tensile-strength steel, plus a composite deckhouse.

Because the ship's mission will bring it closer to shore than previous destroyers, a stealthy design is required. Bath and Northrop Grumman are planning an inward-sloping "tumblehome" hull and other features to reduce the vessel's radar signature. The collaboration of the two shipbuilding contractors, archrivals for three decades, would have been unimaginable in the past, when ships were cheaper to build and Navy shipbuilding contracts more plentiful. Today it's a necessity.

"Both shipyards realize that their viability in the future is at stake with this program," said Captain James D. Syring, the Navy's program manager for the DDG-1000 destroyer. "They know that if they don't perform and this program is derailed in any way, in terms of either slowed down or cancelled, they have nothing."

Fabrication for the first new destroyer is scheduled to begin in 2008. Already there signs of preparation at the Bath shipyard. Workers recently installed a $3 million welding gantry purchased by the Navy specifically for work on the DDG-1000. Engineers, meanwhile, have upgraded their computer-aided design tools and other processes.

At the same time, Bath has taken on some commercial work as a subcontractor to Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield, Maine, modifying a pair of tankers being converted into supply vessels for the oil and gas industry. And it remains hopeful of future programs, from Navy cruisers and littoral ships to Coast Guard cutters, as well as some foreign military sales of Aegis technology to Taiwan and other countries.

But even with those programs and the new destroyer, no one expects the workforce here to increase substantially in the foreseeable future.

"We're not likely to get a lot larger over time," said strategic planning manager Andrew Bond. "We're a small, capable shipyard."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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