WASHINGTON — Despite causing a political firestorm earlier this year and forcing President Donald Trump to publicly reverse his administration’s position on the matter, the U.S. military again tried to push a plan that would lead to the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman retiring 25 years early and would defund a carrier air wing, according to a White House memo obtained by Defense News.
The plan, which was killed sometime in November during a back-and-forth between the Pentagon and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, was recycled from the 2020 budget submission. At the time, the move was framed as a way to pay for investments in unmanned technologies and long-range hypersonic missiles.
The now-reversed decision to defund the Truman’s refueling lends further insight into the pressures the Navy faces in this budget cycle.
The Truman plan was just one of a series of drastic cuts to both shipbuilding and current force structure outlined in the Dec. 16 memo. In total, proposed cuts would shrink the fleet from the current 293 ships to 287, backing away from earlier plans to grow the fleet to 355 ships.
The plan from the 2020 budget cycle, and advanced again during negotiations for 2021, was to cancel the Truman’s midlife refueling and complex overhaul. Each carrier at around its 25-year mark is sent into dry dock and given enough nuclear fuel to operate its reactor for another 25 years. By not refueling Truman, it would mean the Navy would have to decommission it with half its 50-year hull life remaining.
The proposal in the 2020 budget, which was shot down in a wave of bipartisan blowback, was expected to save the Navy $4 billion. In a note to the Department of Defense, OMB directed the Navy to submit a carrier refueling plan with Truman’s refueling restored.
“The Navy’s [budget submission] does not refuel the USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (CVN-75) or maintain its associated air wing,” the Office of Management and Budget memo read. “DOD should provide to OMB no later than Wednesday, November 27, 2019, the latest carrier refueling plan for the next 30 years that includes the USS HARRY S. TRUMAN.”
A follow-up message from the DoD said the Navy restored funding for the carrier and associated air wing.
“With respect to the TRUMAN, the Navy provided the carrier refueling plan on time,” the DoD responded in the memo. “A recent DoD Program Budge Decision directs Navy to restore the funding for USS HARRY S TRUMAN (CVN 75), the refueling of the carrier, and restoring the associated carrier air wing.”
OMB responded that it agreed restoring the carrier was the right move. “OMB concurs with the recent Program Budget Decision (PBD) that directs the Navy to restore the funding for USS HARRY S TRUMAN (CVN 75), the refueling of the carrier, and restoring the associated carrier air wing,” the memo read.
In a statement, Navy spokesman Lt. Timothy Pietrack said the Navy would not comment on pending budget decisions, calling the budget request “pre-decisional.”
“We will not comment on future shipbuilding or maintenance decisions until the budget request is submitted to Congress next year,” Pietrack said.
When the Navy tried to float a plan to cancel Truman’s refueling earlier this year, it was met by overwhelming skepticism on Capitol Hill.
Even staunch allies of the president on Capitol Hill refused to line up behind it. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was “disturbed” by the plan. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said it was “mind-boggling.” The chairman of the House Seapower and Project Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., told Defense News that there was “zero chance” his panel would take up the proposal.
It was clear within days that the proposal was going nowhere, prompting a tweet from Trump that essentially reversed his own policy.
“I am overriding the Decommission Order of the magnificent aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, built in 1998 (fairly new), and considered one of the largest and finest in the world,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It will be updated at a fraction of the cost of a new one (which also are being built)!”
The reversal and subsequent victory lap by Trump were immediately followed by the resignation of the director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, which was instrumental in pushing the idea on the Navy.
Inhofe told Defense News at the time that the White House had clearly seen the writing on the wall.
“I think they looked at the reaction that they got and how stupid it was to take something out of commission that has half of its life left,” Inhofe said. “It falls into the category of: It’s the right thing to do.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.