Just days after a North Korean artillery attack over a disputed military border killed four South Koreans and wounded 18 others, a U.S. aircraft carrier and its escorts were in the region for preplanned war games.

The U.S. military missions of the past decade — Iraq and Afghanistan — have been largely air- and ground-based. But the recent North Korean flare-up has drawn international attention to problems there, as well. And the subsequent arrival of the USS George Washington and its battle group serves as a reminder of the importance of a strong naval fleet, suggested Jay Korman, a defense analyst with the Avascent Group.

“It’s often said there’s no better substitute for projecting U.S. power than parking tons of steel on someone’s doorstep,” said Korman. “Whether it’s North Korea or China saber-rattling over Taiwan, these kinds of events bring naval power to the fore.”

And such an event also points to the importance of naval shipbuilding, suggested Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, something vital to the Maine economy, home to Bath Iron Works.

Collins, a member of the Armed Forces Committee and its Seapower Subcommittee, said the recent incident with South Korea — combined with China’s growing sea power — demonstrates how essential it is that the U.S. have a strong Navy to be able “to project power around the world.”

“The dangerous tensions on the Korean peninsula and the buildup of China of its fleet remind us that we are always going to need a strong Navy — and that means we’re always going to need a strong Bath Iron Works,” Collins said.

BIW is one of Maine’s largest private employers with 5,700 workers. Its chief and only customer is the U.S. Navy. BIW makes destroyers for the Navy — in fact, one of the three destroyers escorting the George Washington, the USS Fitzgerald, is a BIW-built ship.

BIW is currently working on two kinds of destroyers for the Navy, the older Arleigh Burke class and the next-generation Zumwalt class.

The Pentagon cut short the Zumwalt class at three ships due to escalating costs, pegged at $1.4 billion each. BIW has the contract to build one of the ships, and is in-line to build the other two, which analysts say would likely be used as test platforms for advanced technologies. BIW spokesman Jim DeMartini said the yard was negotiating final contract terms, conditions and prices with the Navy on the Zumwalt ships.

BIW is in a similar situation in negotiating terms for construction of a new Arleigh Burke ship, as well.

“As you can imagine, all of these discussions involve complex issues and details,” said DeMartini. “We’re confident that negotiations will result in the expected contract awards.”

Korman said he didn’t think the tensions with North Korea would result in a near-term bump in the Pentagon’s shipbuilding budget. But it may help shore up political support, something needed in light of recent Capitol Hill turnover, said Korman.

“It’s events like [the North Korean attack] that create new advocates,” Korman said, noting that the industry has had powerful political support in the past. “There’s nothing like something like this to show people on the fence that naval shipbuilding is important.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, agreed.

“The activity in Korea may make a difference,” she said.

Pingree sits on the Armed Services Committee, and serves on the Seapower Subcommittee. The United States has not kept up its shipbuilding rate at a pace that keeps the industrial base healthy, said Pingree. And it also puts the nation on track to have a smaller fleet than China, if that country continues to grow its naval forces at its current pace.

“Most Americans assume we’re keeping up when really, we’re not,” said Pingree.

That military balance in the Western Pacific is the true concern, suggested Jan van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The current issue with North Korea doesn’t raise much concern about the size of the Navy, he said — the U.S. forces could easily handle any serious problems with that country, should they arise.

But it does draw attention to that region, he said.

“It certainly points up the enduring need for naval forces in that particular part of the world,” said van Tol. “It’s primarily a maritime theater.”

The Navy puts the current size of the fleet at 286 ships. Navy leadership recommends a fleet of 313 ships. Toward the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan wanted a 600-ship Navy.

Collins said the Armed Services Committee heard testimony this year from an independent, bipartisan commission that recommended a fleet of 346 ships to meet the country’s military requirements and protect its economic interests. The commission highlighted the Western Pacific as an area of concern, she said.

“I’ve had many exchanges with the chief of naval operations at hearings and privately in which we’ve talked about China’s buildup of its fleet — including how China’s now building an aircraft carrier,” she said. “This is an ominous sign. It shows why it’s so important for us to keep our Navy strong.”