WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s plans to cut costs by decommissioning the Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier hit another powerful roadblock Thursday when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe said he’s not yet convinced.
The Pentagon’s plan is to cancel the planned 2024 midlife refueling to save $30 billion over 25 years, but Inhofe, R-Okla., told acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford and Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist, that he was “a little disturbed” by that scenario.
“I am a little disturbed by the idea that we will be taking the USS Truman out of the system, and I wonder how this will work in our sheer numbers,” Inhofe said.
Inhofe is the latest key lawmaker to cast doubt on the plans. Last month, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., the head of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said he would block the early decommissioning of the Truman as Congress debates the issue in its annual defense policy bill.
Inhofe, another key gatekeeper on defense policy, did not go that far, but he did point to the Navy’s legal requirement to maintain 11 carriers and argued the U.S. needs 10 “to conduct a major war."
“How do we get what we’re supposed to have if we don’t follow through with the midlife of the Truman?” he asked.
Inhofe also sounded a skeptical note about relying on the Ford-class carriers as the solution of the future, given the string of problems the Navy has had integrating new technologies into the ship type — something on which President Donald Trump has also harped.
Shanahan defended the Truman plans as a component of plans for a two-carrier block buy, arguing it increases the military’s lethality — and, over five years, saves $4 billion with the two-carrier buy and $3.4 billion with the decommissioning. Until the mid-2020s, the U.S. would maintain 11 carriers, he said.
“With this decision, we grow employment in the industrial base. We needed to make sure not only the shipyard maintain their employment, but the supply chain,” he said. “The funds we freed up by making these decisions are invested in the future force.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Seapower Subcommittee, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, picked up the line of questioning, arguing the move would give the country only 50 percent of the Truman’s life span. She asked pointedly how canceling three years of shipyard work would grow the workforce.
Shanahan replied that there’s a combination of work on submarines, new carriers and maintenance at a single shipyard: “Total employment goes up over the period of time we’re building the carriers,” he explained.
Replied Hirono: “Frankly, as I talk to some of the people in the shipyards I’m not so sure that that is the case."
Turning to Dunford, Hirono noted that savings from the Truman roughly equates with the amount of Pentagon funds for the president’s border wall. Wouldn’t it make sense, she wanted to know, whether the money would be better spent on the Truman since it aligns with the National Defense Strategy?
Dunford responded that this was a decision above him.
“If I look at it in the military dimension alone, I have to acknowledge that the [defense] secretary and the president have broader responsibilities than I do,” he said.
“Like building a vanity wall, thank you,” Hirono replied.
Meanwhile, the Navy has been busy soft-pedaling the decision to decommission the Truman.
In his budget rollout briefing on Tuesday, the Navy’s budget director said the decision was made to help the service invest in future technologies but could be revisited pending future analysis.
“This approach does pursue a balance of high-end survival platforms like the aircraft carrier, as well as a greater number of complementary, more affordable, potentially more cost-imposing and attributable options,” said Rear Adm. Randy Crites.
“So we biased this decision towards the future, mindful that we still have time to respond to further analysis. There is a force-structure assessment and other work ongoing that will help us validate this decision.”
That’s a message that the Navy’s top officer echoed the next day at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference, saying that future analysis might drive a different approach.
“This year, we’re continuing to study the security environment," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said. "We’re doing a force-structure assessment that will update the assessment that resulted in the 355-ship goal. The combatant commanders are doing their analysis of the security environment and updating their global campaign plans.”
“That work will all be done this year. And what this budget also entails is the flexibility to respond to what those studies tell us.”
The move to decommission Truman is the second such attempt to can a Nimitz-class carrier early. The last time the Navy tried this was in 2013 when it tried to scrap the George Washington instead of refueling it — a move meant to save money as the force faced across-the-board budget cuts due to the Budget Control Act.
That plan was shelved after significant congressional pushback led by Inhofe’s predecessor as SASC chairman, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.