WASHINGTON — In the 12 years since the Pentagon canceled the next-generation cruiser, the question seemed to have no good answer: How is the Navy going to replace its 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the air defense ships that each pack 122 vertical-launching missile cells?

The ideas varied from cheap arsenal ships designed to pack scores of missile cells capable of remote firing, to a larger version of the Arleigh Burke able to support more than its current 96 more missile tubes, to today’s push for an unmanned surface vessel that can act as an adjunct missile magazine accompanying the fleet and that can be rotated out as it expends its payloads.

But each of those solutions has encountered problems, and all the while the cruisers keep getting older, more worn and closer to the day when maintenance costs outweigh the vessels’ benefits.

As it gears up for its 2022 budget battle, the Navy has signaled it is time to move on and phase out the cruisers to make room for the next-generation Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, even if it means shrinking the fleet in the near term. The Flight III doesn’t solve the Navy’s missile problem, but it does have enough space onboard (it’s about 400 tons heavier than its Flight IIA counterparts) to house the air warfare command role that currently belongs to the cruisers.

Experts and observers who spoke to Defense News think it’s time for the Navy to cut its losses on cruisers but said the loss of the vertical launching system, or VLS, tubes is a significant concern, especially given the missile and anti-air threat in Indo-Pacific region.

The Navy had planned to keep 11 cruisers in the fleet for as long as possible to pair with the 11 aircraft carriers, but now the service is looking at phasing in the Flight III DDG as an alternative. A one-for-one swap of 11 destroyer for 11 cruisers is a net loss of more than 300 VLS cells.

But for the Navy, it is a matter of where its money is best spent. After years of battling Congress over the fate of its largest surface combatant, the Navy looks poised to fight for accelerating their decommissioning. The settlement with Congress created the current cruiser modernization program, but the Navy is again looking to change course.

In an emailed statement to Defense News, the Navy’s top requirements officer said there would be a new plan for the cruisers submitted with the fiscal 2022 budget, and that the escalating costs associated with keeping them is driving the conversation.

“Due to increased program cost, schedule delays, substantial growth work and challenges with shipyard execution, the Navy considered truncating the [cruiser modernization] program as part of a pre-decisional version of the 30-year shipbuilding plan drafted under the previous administration,” said Vice Adm. Jim Kilby, the deputy chief of naval operations for war-fighting requirements and capabilities. “These plans are under review by the current administration as part of broader discussions regarding the FY22 budget.”

A rendering of DDG-125, the first Flight III destroyer. (courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries)
A rendering of DDG-125, the first Flight III destroyer. (courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries)

The Navy’s plan going forward is to start phasing in the Flight III DDG as the primary air and missile defense command ships, along with the next-generation destroyer currently in development, Kilby said. The first Flight III, the Jack Lucas, is scheduled to begin entering the fleet in 2023, Kilby said.

Flight III was built around the Raytheon-developed AN/SPY-6 radar system, which is about 30 times more sensitive than the SPY-1 arrays on the Navy’s current cruisers and destroyers, but it requires much more power. That led to a significant redesign of the Flight IIA DDG.

Changing the deal

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 through the 2030s.

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. Today, the Navy has five ships in modernization, four of which have completed significant portions of the upgrades. Two of them are going through a difficult reactivation process to bring the ships back to the fleet in 2022, Kilby said.

The idea behind the 2-4-6 plan was to keep the class as the air and missile defense command ships of the fleet until the last cruiser, the Cape St. George, retired in 2038 after 40 years in active service.

In its 2021 budget submission, the Navy floated the idea of canceling six of the planned cruiser modernizations and starting to accelerate decommissioning the hulls.

The plan, as it was proposed to Congress, was 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 previously received 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 same congressional objections still exist today that a few years ago birthed the Navy’s 2-4-6 plan. In March, House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Elaine Luria, D-Va., said she is opposed to decommissioning older ships as the Navy tries to grow.

Sailors watch F/A-18 Super Hornets fly over the guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill during a deployment. (U.S. Navy)
Sailors watch F/A-18 Super Hornets fly over the guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill during a deployment. (U.S. Navy)

But with the new administration pushing for the divestiture of older systems to invest in new ones, the Navy is gearing up for a renewed debate on cruisers in 2022, the service’s top officer told a roundtable of reporters April 5.

“Does it make more sense to hang on with the cruises that are that are well past their 30-years service life, continue to pour millions of dollars into upkeeping those vessels, [while] the White House has directed that we divest of legacy and invest in new platforms?” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday asked. “For the Navy, we know that’s a distributed maritime operations concept that is driving a smaller, more distributed fleet [with fewer] large vessels, and more lethal, smaller vessel. That means frigates. So we should have that debate over whether we should put that next dollar into a 33-year-old cruiser, or whether we should invest in the Flight III DDG.

“We ought to have that debate because, in the end, hopefully what’s driving it are some of those attributes that I talked about before: lethality, survivability, operational reach, total ownership costs, maintenance requirements, technical risks, industrial-base capacity.”

The Navy is facing a VLS tube problem, however. Decommissioning the cruisers, along with other high-capacity VLS ships such as the Ohio-class guided missile submarines, means the Navy has fewer missile tubes coming into the fleet than it has leaving, a troubling trend in the light of China’s investments in anti-surface missiles.

A Defense News analysis from January found that if the Navy is on a course to decommission around 70 ships with nearly 5,500 VLS cells, replacing them with 65 ships and submarines that have anywhere from 1,800 to more than 2,000 fewer VLS cells by the early 2030s.

The VLS tube debate, while important, shouldn’t drive the whole discussion, Gilday said. “We can’t just be counting VLS tubes and satisfying ourselves that that’s the sole metric we’re going to look at.”

Buying new

The Navy would likely be better served buying new ships instead of throwing more money at cruisers, said Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and senior fellow with the Hudson Institute.

The reason is simple: Modernizing older ships is difficult because you never know what you are going to find when you start working on the ship. That means labor costs will almost certainly grow, making the job and the associated costs more difficult and less defined than would be the case with a newly purchased ship.

“With these service-life extensions, it’s open ended: You get inside of [it and] you don’t know what the work is going to be, and the materials may not be that expensive, but the labor is really expensive,” Clark said. “And then the dry dock time is really expensive.

“So it’s an open-ended process and the costs of being open-ended. It ends up that taking these older platforms and trying to extend their lives is oftentimes a more expensive, less valuable or less cost-effective option than simply buying a new thing to replace it.

“It’s not unreasonable to say: ‘Well, why don’t I spend $1.7 billion to get a ship that will last 40 years instead of upwards of $500 million to get a ship for 10?’ ”

But that is going to run into Congress’ effort to drive up the number of ships in the fleet, he added.

“I think the discussion is going to be: Are we willing to accept a slight reduction in the size of the fleet for a time because we’re going to let these ships leave until DDG numbers pick up? There’s an optics question there.”