Under heavy pressure to find real cuts, U.S. Navy officials are considering decommissioning a nuclear aircraft carrier halfway through its planned lifespan, two Pentagon sources confirmed.
The USS George Washington's three-year-long refueling overhaul, scheduled to begin in 2016, would be canceled under the scheme, and the ship would be decommissioned as its reactor fuel ran out.
Along with the carrier, the Navy could also disband one of its 10 carrier air wings - a move that would save roughly as much money and people as cutting the ship.
Decommissioning the GW would leave the Navy with a 10-ship carrier fleet, a move that would need to be approved by Congress. U.S. law currently mandates an 11-ship force.
Navy officials would not confirm or deny the story.
"Until the 2013 president's budget request is submitted to Congress in February 2012 and becomes part of the public record, all decisions are pre-decisional and it would be inappropriate to discuss specific details," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Courtney Hillson said Oct. 6.
The Pentagon is under a White House directive to find at least $464 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, and more severe reductions could be coming should the congressional "super committee" not be able to agree in the coming weeks on a budget reduction plan.
Navy officials early this year considered stretching out the carrier construction program - taking six or seven years to build the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) rather than the current five - and some factions urged delaying the John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) by several years. Those considerations now seem to have gone by the wayside, and budget officials are focusing on the refueling overhauls as a way to reduce the force.
The Nimitz-class carriers now in service are designed with 50-year service lives, which include a major refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH) at the midlife point. The Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) is now in the final year of her RCOH, and the Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is scheduled to enter Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. - where all the carriers are built and the RCOH overhauls done - next summer.
The Navy already is spending money for Lincoln's overhaul, and awarded Newport News a $206 million contract in February to continue planning and preparation work.
Asked Sept. 15 if the Lincoln overhaul might be canceled, Adm. Gary Roughead, then the chief of naval operations, shook his head, no. "There would be a lot of wastage on CVN 72 if you were to do that," he said.
But there were no such statements about the George Washington.
No contracts have been let for the GW overhaul. Although the savings won't appear for a few more years, the reductions would still take place within the 10-year window.
If the scheme goes forward, the ship could be decommissioned between 2016 and 2021. The deciding factor could be monetary, or a simple matter of how much nuclear fuel remains in the ship's two reactors.
Easing the situation is the fact that the George Washington is based in Japan, where the U.S. Navy shares facilities at Yokosuka naval shipyard with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. The Japanese government contributes to the carrier's upkeep, and the dockyard has an excellent reputation for maintaining ships.
The GW also may be able to run longer past her half-life refueling point because she doesn't need to steam thousands of miles from the U.S. to reach the Western Pacific, the ship's normal operating area.
But with the GW out of service, the Navy would also save millions by not operating the ship for another 20 or more years. Not only would the ship's crew of about 2,700 people not be needed, but many thousands of future sailors won't need to be trained. A similar number of sailors come with each carrier air wing.
The Navy wouldn't need the 70-plus aircraft in the wing, and wouldn't need to train those pilots and aircrew and pay to fly the planes.
A price could be paid, however, in a higher operating tempo for the remaining carrier fleet. Like the submarine force, it's possible that deployments of seven or eight months, or more, could become the norm.
Whether or not the Navy requests permission to decommission the ship in the 2013 budget request may be a moot point with a presidential election coming in 2012. Congress raised its collective ire only a few years ago when the service asked for permission to temporarily drop to a 10-ship fleet during the time when the Enterprise is decommissioned in 2013 and the Ford is commissioned in 2016. But when the request was resubmitted in an off-election year, virtually no objections were raised.
One veteran observer opined that the Navy could cancel or defer the refueling overhaul, but leave a specific request to decommission the ship until after the election.