WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is considering canceling six planned service-life extensions on its oldest cruisers, meaning the service will be short six of its current 22 largest surface combatants by 2022, according to defense officials who spoke to Defense News on background.
The plan, as it will be proposed to Congress, is to decommission the cruisers Bunker Hill, Mobile Bay, Antietam, Leyte Gulf, San Jacinto and Lake Champlain in 2021 and 2022, foregoing plans for service-life extensions that have previously seen support in Congress.
All the ships will be at or near the end of their 35-year service lives when they are decommissioned, but the Navy has yet to decide on a replacement for the cruisers, which are the largest combatants in the fleet with 122 vertical launch systems cells. This comes at a time when the Navy needs as many missiles downrange as it can field as it squares off with the threat of Chinese and Russian anti-ship missiles.
Cruisers have 26 more vertical launch system, or VLS, cells per hull than their Arleigh Burke Flight IIA destroyer counterparts, and 32 more than the Flight I Burkes.
But the cruisers, which act as the lead air defense ship in a carrier strike group, have been notoriously difficult to maintain. The fleet has managed everything from cracking hulls to aging pipes and mechanical systems. The ships’ SPY-1 radars have also been difficult to maintain, as components age and need constant attention from technicians.
In the past, Congress outright rejected plans to decommission the cruisers without a replacement program lined up. But the tone on the House Armed Services Committee’ sea power subpanel has begun to shift on the issue.
When asked about his position on the Navy’s plan to decommission the six oldest cruisers beginning in 2021, Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Joe Courtney, D-Conn., did not dismiss the idea outright.
“The Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee has engaged in robust debate over the years on the best path to maintain our fleet of cruisers," Courtney said in a statement. “In previous years, we have put significant restrictions on the retirement and life-extensions to ensure that the fleet maintains a capable cruiser fleet. I fully anticipate that the subcommittee will again review tradeoffs as it relates to the cruiser fleet as we begin our work on the FY20 NDAA.”
Courtney’s Republican counterpart on the committee, ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., also sounded a cautious note when asked about the decision.
“I believe we should be looking holistically as to options to meet the 355-ship Navy requirement,” Wittman said. “I think that we need to carefully review Navy’s recommendation that reverses their service-life extension recommendation of last year. These cruisers are integral to the carrier battle group and in the end, we need to ensure that the Navy has the right force structure to meet combatant commander requirements.”
The shift in Congress is likely because lawmakers are coming to terms with the deteriorating condition of the ships, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain with the Telemus Group.
“I think there is a growing recognition that the material condition of the ships is going to limit most of them to their rated service life,” Hendrix said. “But I think there will be an effort to see if some number of the cruisers can be saved. I think with the announcement of the follow-on large surface combatant that it’s clear that the Navy is ready to move on and identify a successor for the Ticonderoga class.”
The Navy has announced plans to buy a replacement large surface combatant but recently delayed the first buy from 2023 to 2025, according to a report from USNI News.
The Navy’s top officer told reporters in a roundtable March 14 that the service was working through the requirements process.
“We’re early in the discussion of requirements on the large surface combatant. I’ve got to tell you, given kind of the discussion that’s happened already, the first question that we have to do is prove to ourselves that we need a large surface combatant,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said. “What is the unique contribution of something like that in the face of all of these emerging technologies?"
Richardson said that early analysis showed the service’s large sensor and missile capacity were a pressing need, but added that discussions were ongoing.
The fate of the cruisers has been a nearly annual fight on Capitol Hill, as the Navy has tried desperately to divest themselves of the troublesome class.
The service repeatedly drew the ire of former HASC sea power subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., who didn’t trust the Navy to keep the ships in service and therefore wrote clear language into several National Defense Authorization Act bills prohibiting the move.
The Navy ultimately agreed to the so-called 2-4-6 plan in 2015, which allowed the service to lay up to two cruisers a year, for no more than four years and allow no more than six of the ships to undergo modernization at any one time.
The Navy began modernizing the cruisers Cowpens and Gettysburg last year in accordance with the plan. Both were put into phased modernization in 2015, meaning they’ll need to come out in 2019.
The Navy’s cruiser modernization efforts will likely continue in 2019. The cruisers Vicksburg and Chosin were inducted into phased modernization in 2016, meaning they will be within their year window come next year. Furthermore, the Navy asked for funding for six cruiser service-life extensions in 2019, according to its most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan.
The Navy plans to release an updated 30-year shipbuilding plan in the coming days and declined to comment on the plan for the cruisers until the plan is made public.
The Navy has been making the most of the ships while they have them, however. The cruiser Mobile Bay in 2017 became the first ship in the fleet to have the latest and greatest version of the combat system Aegis, Baseline 9, installed on its older open-architecture Baseline 8 system, an experiment to prove that new installations on older ships can be done in a matter of weeks rather than months or years — a system the Navy wants to employ on all ships going forward.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.