The Navy may be reversing plans to decommission the aircraft carrier George Washington. (MC3 Brian H. Abel / Navy)
WASHINGTON — Indications are growing that the US Navy, faced with large-scale congressional opposition to its plan to decommission the aircraft carrier George Washington, is preparing to begin the process to refuel and modernize the ship.
Navy sources confirm that a $182 million contract could be awarded “soon” to Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding, the only shipyard capable of building and refueling the world’s largest warships.
The advanced planning contract would allow the shipyard to begin work specific to the overhaul, rather than the refueling. A separate award of about $63 million would still be made to plan defueling the GW’s two nuclear reactors – a necessary step whether the ship is refueled or decommissioned.
The Navy had planned to cancel the ship’s mid-life, $3.5 billion refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH) and instead decommission the George Washington — an economy move brought about by sequestration and the need to slash the service’s budget. With Congress unlikely to approve the measure in an election year, the Navy’s 2015 budget proposal asked for no funding to support the defueling, and put off a decision regarding the carrier’s future until 2016.
But congressional displeasure with the inactivation plan is widespread. Three of the four congressional oversight committees have provided funding for the GW in their 2015 defense bills, and Senate appropriators are expected to follow suit in their markup, scheduled for July 17.
The Navy declined to comment on specific plans.
“The president’s 2015 budget request maintains the option to refuel or inactivate the George Washington,” Cmdr. Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokesperson at the Pentagon, said June 30. “We continue to work closely with the shipbuilder and Congress as we consider alternatives which are influenced by congressional action in 2015.”
Award of the planning contract, along with a clear decision to proceed with the RCOH, might allow Newport News and the Navy to bring the project forward, closer to its original schedule and avoiding some of the costs of delay.
The overhaul already has been pushed back from 2016 into the spring of 2017, already incurring the prospect of worker layoffs and scheduling problems in future carrier overhauls. A decision to award the planning contract now, by one estimate, could save about $70 million over delaying a start until next year.
Savings from not operating the GW for another 20-plus years would also be significant, and the service also had hoped to inactivate one of the fleet’s ten carrier air wings.
Even with congressional support, a decision to restore the George Washington means the Navy will need to renew its search for major cost savings. Some have suggested that in 2015, when no elections will take place, the Navy could propose decommissioning the carrier Nimitz, now the oldest operating flattop.
The George Washington is currently on patrol in southeast Asia. The ship, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, will be replaced in the western Pacific next year by the carrier Ronald Reagan.