While few changes in the new shipbuilding plan are evident, the U. S. Navy is still seeking to retire seven cruisers – like the USS Vicksburg – and two amphibious ships in 2015 as budget-cutting measures. (Christopher Cavas / Staff)
WASHINGTON — Rebuffed by Congress in an attempt to inactivate nine warships as a cost-cutting measure, the US Navy is set to try again – in 2015.
The effort is reflected in data tables sent by the service to Capitol Hill in advance of a Wednesday-morning hearing on acquisition plans for the Navy and Air Force. The tables, prepared to accompany the forthcoming annual 30-year shipbuilding plan, were sent to Congress this week without explanation as, according to Navy sources, the final report has yet to be approved.
The tables show few changes over last year’s shipbuilding plans, but nine additional ships appear in the retirement column planned for fiscal 2015.
Other ships also are scheduled to leave service in 2015, reflecting earlier plans, but unexpectedly, two T-AOE fast combat support ships are now on the early retirement list, one each in 2014 and 2015. Previously, the earliest T-AOE retirements weren’t scheduled until 2033.
At about 49,000 tons, the Navy’s four T-AOEs, operated by the Military Sealift Command, are some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated support ships, carrying fuel, ammunition and supplies. The high-speed ships usually accompany aircraft carrier strike groups on overseas deployments.
The renewed effort to reduce the numbers of cruisers and amphibious ships follows an initial announcement in February 2012 that, as a cost-cutting measure, the cruisers Cowpens, Anzio, Vicksburg and Port Royal would be decommissioned in 2013, with the cruisers Gettysburg, Chosin, Hue City and amphibious dock ships Whidbey Island and Tortuga following in 2014.
All were being inactivated prior to the normally-expected end of their service lives. The service looked for savings by cutting operations, canceling further modernization of the ships and reducing the need for about 3,000 sailors.
But Congress objected to the force reductions and, in the 2013 defense authorization bill passed Jan. 1, required the Navy to keep the ships in service. But the Navy didn’t request operating funds for the ships it wanted to inactivate in 2013, and they were placed in an “operational but not funded” status.
It is not clear from the data tables if the seven cruisers and two amphibs to be decommissioned in 2015 are the same ships the Navy early planned to inactivate. But the decommissionings are sure to be a point of contention on Capitol Hill.
“If decline is a choice, this new 30-year shipbuilding plan willingly chooses to continue the slow, painful decline of American seapower,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said Tuesday in a statement. Forbes chairs the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, set to hold the Wednesday morning hearing.
“After committing to a 313-ship fleet,” Forbes continued, “this plan has the Navy headed to just 270 [in 2015] after retiring 31 vessels and only procuring 16 new ones during this time. More alarming, while this fleet is shrinking by retiring and building less major surface combatants and amphibious ships, we are artificially filling these gaps with smaller surface combatants and support vessels.
“In the decade ahead we will lean more heavily on our seapower forces to underpin our national security strategy; prioritizing a shipbuilding budget to resource this strategy should be one of our first priorities,” Forbes said in the statement.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the service’s top spokesman, defended the service’s efforts.
“Today we provided Congress information tables from our draft 30-year shipbuilding plan,” Kirby said in a statement. “We believe the information found in these tables clearly articulates our intention to modernize and grow the fleet to our required minimum of 306 ships.
“We have been upfront and transparent about the need to decommission older ships,” Kirby continued, “while at the same introducing new and more capable platforms. Both Secretary [Ray] Mabus and Admiral [Jonathan] Greenert,” chief of naval operations, “have been clear about the need to further our success in shipbuilding. Indeed, under Secretary Mabus' leadership the Navy has put 43 new ships under contract. We look forward to working with the Congress to discuss the way forward.”