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U.S. Navy Sidesteps Most Pentagon Cuts

Jan. 26, 2012 - 05:31PM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS   |   Comments
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The U.S. fleet keeps its 11 aircraft carriers as well as its 10 air wings. About a third of the fleet of 22 cruisers — seven ships — will be decommissioned early. A number of shipbuilding programs or hulls will be pushed back, but not — apparently — killed. And there was no mention of reductions in any U.S. Navy aviation program.

All in all, as expected, no Navy program suffered a severe blow from the Pentagon’s 2013 budget-cutting ax.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s Jan. 26 presentation, along with an accompanying briefing document, at least filled in the blanks on a number of Navy-related force structure and procurement issues:

• Procurement of the SSBN(X) Ohio-class replacement submarine will be pushed back from 2019 to 2021.

“The schedule, as it was, was an aggressive one, maybe even verging on optimistic,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters. “From a managerial point this is a better place to be.” The choice was “not a strategic decision,” he emphasized.

• One SSN 774 Virginia-class attack submarine was shifted beyond the future years defense plan (FYDP), which extends to fiscal 2017. The service had planned to order two subs per year from 2013 through 2016.

• Future Virginia-class submarines will have “design changes to increase cruise missile capacity.” Submarine builder General Dynamics and the Navy have been developing a Virginia Payload Module fitted with four new Virginia Payload Tubes, each capable of carrying and launching six cruise missiles. The briefing did not mention when the changes would take effect, but submarine officials have been aiming at the Block 5 submarine procurement to begin in 2019.

• The current big-deck amphibious assault ship force of nine ships will be maintained, although two older LSD 41-class landing ship docks will be decommissioned early. The next assault ship to be ordered, LHA 8, will slide from 2016 to 2017.

• Two Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) and eight Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs) will be “reduced” from the FYDP. There is no mention of cutting the ships from the overall buy, so they may be shifted later in the shipbuilding plan. A Navy spokesman said the Navy “remains committed to the 55-ship LCS fleet.”

But a service spokesperson declined to restate the Navy’s commitment to the existing 10-ship JHSV program. “Those details will be released on Feb. 13 with the president’s budget,” said Lt. Courtney Hillson.

The budget briefing document noted that funds will be requested “to forward-station Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore and patrol craft in Bahrain.” The first LCS, USS Freedom — one of only two LCSs in commission — will make a cruise later this year to Singapore, but will be fitted only with a demonstration mission module, not one of the mine-warfare or anti-submarine warfare modules the Navy urgently needs the ships to carry out.

Development of those LCS mission modules is continuing, and is perhaps the reason for a reference elsewhere in the document about protecting “anti-submarine warfare and counter-mine capabilities.”

The seven Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers to be decommissioned include six ships not yet upgraded with ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities and one ship with BMD but “in need of costly hull repairs.” The Navy has not yet identified the individual ships.

The briefing document also notes that the budget will fund “development of a new afloat-forward staging base that can be dedicated to support missions in areas where ground-based access is not available, such as counter-mine operations.” No further details were available.

The new budget will also ask for funds to support design of a “conventional prompt-strike option from submarines.”

Earlier proposals by the George W. Bush administration to develop conventional warheads for submarine-launched Trident nuclear ballistic missiles were rebuffed by critics who questioned how other nations could tell the difference between a nuclear or conventional weapon launch.

But developments in new technologies and the missile’s trajectory are behind the request, the Pentagon’s top uniformed officer said.

The conventional weapon “has a lower trajectory” that will help avoid confusion about mistaking it for a nuclear weapon, said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“There are issues beyond that,” he admitted, “but technology is behind it.”

The senior Pentagon officials made no mention of the Navy’s long-standing goal of a 313-ship Navy, nor for prospects of reaching that goal.

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