Secretary of the Navy stops at EB, touts shipbuilding under his tenure, work by EB employees
Groton — With the aft section of the future USS South Dakota behind him, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on Thursday highlighted the shipbuilding that has happened during his tenure, and he credited Electric Boat employees for building "the best submarines in the world."
"I like building ships," Mabus said to applause.
The visit was Mabus' third to EB's shipyard and likely his last, as he will probably be leaving the position when the new administration comes in. He was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, and he is the longest-serving secretary of the Navy since World War I.
From 2001 to 2008, the Navy put 41 ships under contract, but "that wasn't enough to keep our fleet from shrinking more, and it wasn't enough to keep the work at places like Electric Boat," Mabus said of the years before his tenure.
From 2009 to 2016, 86 ships were under contract.
"We are growing the fleet," he said, noting that the Navy will get back to 300 ships by 2019 and get "back to what we need today" — 308 ships by 2021.
There are 3,375 more people working at EB than the day he took office, Mabus said.
Mabus thanked U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who was present Thursday, for his support of the Navy and the submarine program, referring to him as "Two Sub Joe," the nickname Courtney earned for helping to secure an $18 billion contract awarded to EB to build 10 submarines for the price of nine. He also referenced a gift Courtney gave him: A Connecticut license plate with the words "Ten Sub Ray" on it.
Mabus held up a large punch card with the words "Buy 9 Subs, get the 10th One Free!"
"You saved the taxpayers $2 billion with the kind of work you do here," he told the EB workers.
He acknowledged for the sailors in the crowd that deployments have become longer and more unpredictable, and he said the Navy is working on that and other issues such as the prevention of suicides and sexual assaults.
Several employees and sailors got the opportunity to ask Mabus questions, many of which revolved around keeping steady work in the shipyard and how EB can maximize shipbuilding and maintenance opportunities.
The last question, posed by a sailor, was what sailors can do "on the deck plates" to minimize suicides and alcohol abuse.
When somebody has a problem, Mabus told him, speak up and help them get help.
In a brief interview with the press afterward, Mabus responded to a question about the decision to scrap enlisted ratings after 241 years.
The decision has been met with widespread criticism from current and former sailors, who feel that a part of their identity has been taken away and that they weren't able to provide their input.
The idea came from the Navy's former Master Chief Petty Officer Mike Stevens who "got a lot of input, particularly from chiefs around the fleet," Mabus said.
The main reason for the decision, he said, is to make promotions quicker and easier. The ratings were "so narrow" that at times "you couldn't promote because there was a bottleneck at the top."
"Sometimes your next duty station, there was only one place you could go," Mabus said.
"Now, while you'll still have specialization, while you're doing that, you can also become qualified in (others). If you can't promote in one specific rating, you can in another," he added, noting that sailors will also have more flexibility with their duty stations.
As part of the shakeup, the Navy is matching its qualifications with those of the private sector. Someone who works in aviation who leaves the Navy to work for an airline "would have to start over as far as FAA qualifications," Mabus said.
"The way we're doing it now is we're lining up qualifications in aviation with the FAA qualifications so when you walk out you'll be certified," he added. "So you can just walk across the street and get a job."
Most of the criticism has come from retirees, Mabus said, "and I understand that."
"Everything was perfect when they were there; now you've gone and messed it up," he continued.
"We're not doing it for the sake of change, we're doing it to make promotions easier, so that you can promote quicker, and we're doing it so that you have more choices for duty stations, and we're doing it so that when you leave the Navy, you can walk right into another job instead of having to start over in terms of qualifications," he said.