The Navy’s Hull Game

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Navy photo / MC 1st Class Michael D. Cole

The guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton, the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Guadalupe, and the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz participate in a replenishment-at-sea while the guided-missile destroyers USS Momsen and USS Preble transit in formation in the western Pacific, April 29.

The U.S. Navy routinely says it needs more ships. One way it makes that need more dire is by retiring existing vessels well before their planned lifespan is over.

Think of it as fleethanasia.

But it’s kind of like watching an oak tree grow. It takes so long that you might never know it’s happening.

But, every once in awhile, the truth seeps out, like the seawater leaking into the oil system of the Navy’s newest warship.

Here’s a relevant, edited exchange from a session last Friday before the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel:

REP. ROBERT WITTMAN, R-Va.: In this plan you note the Navy’s projection in FY ’15 is to retire nine assets comprised of seven cruisers and two amphibs, which the Congress restored in FY ’13.
And Congress provided sufficient funds to retain and modernize these assets over two fiscal years. However, yesterday, in testimony before the Sea Powers Subcommittee, Navy witnesses reaffirmed that the Navy intends to eliminate these ships from the inventory with approximately 10 to 12 years still remaining on their hulls…
What you see is that in FY ’15, the previous projection was 276 ships. You see that we are now down to 270 ships. And my concern is: where we are going?…
VICE ADMIRAL WILLIAM BURKE, DEPUTY CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS: Just to start on that, we certainly share your desire to have the biggest and best Navy we possibly can…
The reason we chose the cruisers is, yes, they do have about 10 years of life on them; however, they have an awful lot of maintenance that needs to be done and modernization that needs to be done, and a couple of those ships are specifically challenged with some super structure cracking in their aluminum that, you know, once something like that happens, you don’t know if you can ever fully repair it.
So given that, we chose those ships to be decommissioned…
REP. WITTMAN: The concern is is that, you know, the readiness element, especially with the re-posture to the Asia Pacific, you know, creates a pretty significant gap…there’s also a significant limitation to be able to build new ships to replace those…
ADM. BURKE: Sir, I would expect that we will operate those ships as normal for the next couple of years, and then we would decommission those ships.
I believe that the money is better spent, as I mentioned in my opening statement, on buying back the life of younger ships. Because of the last 10 years, we have not inducted our surface fleet into maintenance at a level we would like to; therefore, we have a maintenance backlog on many of the younger ships that we have that are more capable going forward than those cruisers.
So we would be better off using that money to buy back life-line ships that have 25 or 30 years left in them than on those ships that have 10 years left in them…
REP. WITTMAN: I’m concerned that, in the long run, if we continue to go down the path of saying we’re going to retire ships early, and much earlier than what we intended, and then the Navy comes back to Congress to ask for the next class of ship with a proposal that a ship were to last 25, 35, 40 years, whatever it may be, that the credibility begins to be eroded and it makes it more difficult for Congress in considering those new classes of ships and what is projected as their service life out in the future, to make those kind of commitments…
We have got to get things back to the point where we look at life-cycle costs to make sure we get these ships to their expected service lives. If not, we’ll never get arms around this.

No kidding. But it’s not a new problem. Battleland first wrote about it 20 years ago, and again in 1997.