Naval warfare reporter David Larter offers his take on the state of the U.S. Navy's surface fleet after recently embarking with service personnel. (Jeff Martin, Dustin Diaz, Ben Murray and Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)

ABOARD THE CRUISER MOBILE BAY, Pacific Ocean — At 30 years, the cruiser Mobile Bay is riding a high.

It recently completed an integration of the Navy’s AEGIS Baseline 9 software onto the older Baseline 8 hardware — a move that is designed to give the ship increased offensive capabilities of the newer software without the added expense of ripping up the combat information center and installing all new hardware.

It’s the product of several years of advancements in combat system technology and it paid off in November with the launch of two SM-2 missiles and an Evolved Sea Sparrow missile from the forward missile launcher.

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Launching missiles is what it’s all about for a cruiser-destroyer sailor, which meant the seemingly countless hours of testing and maintenance ahead of the launch – intended to certify the new Baseline 9 install – were for a good cause.

“When it comes to the MISSILE-EX, we’re there from the beginning to the end,” said one fire control tech who spoke to Defense News onboard the cruiser. “So that’s very rewarding seeing that the equipment works and all the effort you put in worked. That’s where it gets paid back to us.”

Installing Baseline 9 onto the Baseline 8 configuration is the result of the older system’s open-architecture design and a common source code library that makes software upgrades simpler. Instead of a new baseline install taking months, the 9 on 8 shift took just a few weeks. That means it’s both cheaper and easier to integrate new systems.

Baseline 9 gives the ship the ability to shoot Raytheon’s long-range SM-6 missile – designed for use against both air and surface targets – but also gives the ship the ability to shoot at targets acquired by other airborne sensors such as an E-2D Hawkeye or the soon-to-arrive F-35 Lightning II.

That’s just the kind of extended range and lethality that Surface Fleet boss Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden has been championing since he arrived at Naval Surface Force Pacific in 2014.

“I think certainly the back-fit of Baseline 9 to the Baseline 8 computing environment for those initial cruisers gives them capability that allows them to pace the threat,” Rowden said in an November interview with Defense News. “And I think those ships will continue to be valuable to our overseas operations.”

The ship’s commanding officer is enthusiastic about the capabilities the new system brings to bear.

“Right now, on a 30-year-old ship, I have the most capable combat system,” said Capt. Jim Storm. “It was a pretty powerful moment when we were sitting on the pier directly across from a destroyer that had just got commissioned two weeks prior – we were gearing up for our MISSILE-EX. I was able to tell my crew that when we deploy, based on where we are going and the threats we’ll be facing, I’d rather be on this ship than that one.

“That’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to tell your crew, it’s something to get excited about.”

‘It will kick you’

The fact that Mobile Bay at 30 is one of the most advanced ships in the fleet speaks volumes about the care the Navy puts into its ships, but the good times are only going to last for so long. Mobile Bay is rapidly approaching its 35-year service life and it needs work.

The Mobile Bay is, along with the Bunker Hill, are the first two cruisers on the chopping block under the Navy’s current decom schedule in 2020. The plan now is to start decommissioning the oldest 11 cruisers at a rate of two per year. Nobody in the Navy or Congress seems to want that to happen, but as always it comes down to money.

The officers and sailors onboard the ship mostly seem to agree that the ship has plenty of life left in the tank, so long as the Navy puts the money in to keep her. But therein lies the dilemma.

Keeping a 30-year-old cruiser that’s been rode hard is like keeping up a classic car: It takes a lot of time and care to keep it running smoothly.

Pipes that have been running cooling water, sewage, sea water and potable water for 30 years have thinned out and are starting to leak. The aluminum superstructure has been suffering cracking problems for years. Tanks have been wearing down and the old SPY-1A radar that is the whole raison d’être of the CG is an enormous time suck to keep alive and ticking.

The SPY-1A, unlike the solid state SPY-6 radar going on the next iteration of the Arleigh Burke destroyers, runs off a central nervous system inside the ship that directs energy through tubes and wave guides up to the arrays and outward. All that equipment is old and obsolete.

To keep it alive, sailors have to get creative – horse trade with other ships for parts and use the old mothball fleet in Philadelphia as a parts locker.

“It’s like anything old, it takes love,” said another FC who spoke to Defense News. “I like the radar but, yes, it is very maintenance intensive. If you don’t show it the love, it will kick you.”

Rowden, the Surface Fleet boss, has been vocal about his desire to find a way to keep the cruisers.

“The cruisers are phenomenally capable ships, not only from the standpoint of the crews we have on them and the seniority of the commanding officers that are running those ships, but in the technological capability that those ships deliver,” he said.

“They are extremely valuable not only in the execution of carrier strike group operations but as we look to start bringing the F-35s onto the big-deck amphibs, the opportunity to build and understand the concept of the up-gunned [amphibious expeditionary strike group]. I think that argues for perhaps the utilization of those ships in that type of situation as well.

The Navy is studying what it would take to keep the cruisers running well into the future. One solution being explored would be back-fitting a solid-state radar onto the cruisers, but the added weight in the already top-heavy cruiser presents a design challenge, according to several sources who spoke to Defense News on background.

The old SPY-1 radar distributes its weight around the superstructure and decks of Ticonderoga-class. Adding the full SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar to the Arleigh Burkes required a nearly 50 percent redesign of the hull, adding length to support the weight and a new power and cooling system to operate it.

That might mean a scaled-down version of the SPY-6, such as the one being proposed for the Navy’s future frigate program.

But that still leaves a significant investment in new wiring, pipes and other hull, mechanical and electrical equipment to keep the ships going for another decade or so. The House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee chairman, Rep. Rob Wittman, told Defense News in November that he hopes to find a way to keep the oldest cruisers in commission.

The sooner the better

But one thing that’s clear to the crew: the sooner the Navy makes a decision on whether to keep Mobile Bay and her sister ships around the better.

Crew members said that some maintenance that they need to get done is difficult-to-impossible to get approved because they are within the five-year window of getting decommissioned, and if the Navy acts soon they can begin to schedule some of those upgrades during upcoming maintenance availabilities.

That has the added benefit of spreading the work out over a number of smaller avails rather than one whopping modernization with a staggering price tag, one crew member said.

With the ship reaching its sell-by date, the Navy will get as much life out of Mobile Bay as it is willing to fund, crew members said, something Rowden agreed with.

“I think it’s true for any ship: as long as the funding is there the ship hangs around,” Rowden said. “When the funding dries up they take it out of service, whether you are talking about cruisers or aircraft carriers or anything in between.”

Storm, the ship’s commanding officer, echoed that sentiment, saying that the capabilities the ship brings to the fight are valuable but keeping Mobile Bay boils down to a financial decision.

“I think any platform will get to whatever service life you want if you are willing to fund it and give it the time to get there,” he said. “To me, the upgrades that we have make us a pretty formidable asset for my boss. The capabilities that it give us from both a defensive and offensive perspective – they’re pretty neat.”

As for his aging ship, as it stands today, he’s pleased with how its holding up, something he credits to his crew.

“To tell you the truth she’s running pretty good, knock on wood,” Storm said.