WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s surface fleet will start losing some its biggest guns in 2020 at a rate of two per year.

In 2020, the cruisers Mobile Bay and Bunker Hill will reach their service life of 35 years and are slated for decommissioning. But despite the age of the hulls, some observers are loathe to see the cruisers go, especially given that there is no immediate replacement for the 567-foot ship that bristles with 122 vertical launch missile tubes and two 5-inch guns.

“I think the right idea is to put them into a [Service Life Extension Program] and keep them in the fleet,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Center for a New American Security. “It’s cheaper to do that than a new build.

“Furthermore you have 122 VLS tubes in there, and if you are replacing these with the [Arleigh Burke-class destroyers] you get a 25 percent decrease in the number of cells. We really need those tubes. We need the mass — we need the capacity.”

According to the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy will continue to have between 98 and 100 large surface combatants in the fleet during the years the cruisers are decommissioning. The Navy is systematically putting its newest 11 cruisers in layup to modernize them and extend their service life into the late 2030s. But a decommissioning schedule obtained by Defense News shows the oldest 11 cruisers will be out of the fleet by the end of 2026.

The rest of the schedule is as follows: Antietam and Leyte Gulf in 2021; San Jacinto and Lake Champlain in 2022; Philippine Sea and Princeton in 2024; Normandy and Monterey in 2025; and Chancellorsville in 2026.

Bryan McGrath, an analyst and consultant who runs The FerryBridge Group, said decommissioning the cruisers would hurt the surface Navy and that putting them in a Service Life Extension Program is a better alternative.

“It is a sign of the Navy’s budget problem,” McGrath said. “In order to put forward a balanced program of modernization, maintenance, acquisition, personnel and everything else the Navy has to pay for: It’s not skin; it’s not fat; it’s not muscle; they’re cutting into bone now.”

“The administration can talk out of one side of its mouth about the need for a 350-ship Navy, and then out of the other side they are talking about mortgaging current capacity to meet present needs. It’s sad, its irresponsible and it needs to stop.”

The cruisers, however, were only planned for 35 years, and the ships in the fleet have been ridden hard for decades. The aluminum superstructure, for example, has constantly had cracking issues.

355 ships, missile tubes

What’s unclear is what effect decommissioning the oldest cruisers would have on the Navy’s stated, but unfunded, goal of 355 ships.

None of the Navy’s force structure assessments that get the fleet to 355 ships requires the service keeps the 11 oldest cruisers in the fleet past their service life date, according to a source knowledgeable of the Navy’s shipbuilding program and who spoke on background.

What is clear is that decommissioning cruisers has been politically tricky for the Navy for years.

In 2012 and in 2013, the Obama administration proposed decommissioning nine of the Navy’s cruisers as a cost-saving measure but was repeatedly blocked by Congress — an effort led by then-Rep. Randy Forbes, a Republican from Virginia. But the cruisers the Navy planned to decommission had about a decade of service life remaining, and the cruisers now being planned for decommissioning are all up against their sell-by dates.

The Navy is currently executing what’s known as the 2-4-6 plan, a compromise hashed out between Congress and the Navy to keep at least 11 cruisers in the fleet to run shotgun on the air defense of the 11 carriers in the fleet into the 2040s.

The 2-4-6 plan calls for two ships at a time to be sidelined for no longer than four years and that no more than six ships will be in this inactive status at one time.

In a statement to Defense News, the Navy said the current decommissioning plan abides by the congressionally mandated 2-4-6 plan and keeps the Navy within its budget.

“The cruiser modernization plan provides the most effective balance of war-fighting requirements, legislation and fiscal constraints,” said Lt. Seth Clarke, a Navy spokesman.

According to the schedule obtained by Defense News, the last cruiser, the Cape St. George, would leave the fleet in 2038, with 40 years in active service, accounting for the four-plus years it will have spent in what’s known has “phased modernization.”

As to the issue with reduced number of VLS tubes, a one-for-one swap of a cruiser with a new destroyer would reduce the Navy’s available VLS real estate by nearly 300 tubes. But what’s unclear is how, for example, the new Virginia Payload Module and a new guided-missile frigate program might offset the reduced number of cells currently being toted around by cruisers.

What is crystal clear is that there is no shortage of demand for the Navy’s VLS capability, especially as missions such as ballistic missile defense become increasingly important and put an ever-larger strain on the Navy’s surface ships.

The Navy currently has 34 ballistic missile defense-capable ships (32 if you subtract the two ships that are currently inoperable due to collisions over the summer). The Navy proposes to keep upgrading and extending the life of the destroyers in its inventory to cover its BMD missions, which can impact the Navy’s ability to use the ship in multiple roles because it has to stay in a certain location to ensure it can have a good shot at a ballistic missile shot by North Korea or Iran.