WASHINGTON — One panel of lawmakers is coming around to letting the Navy decommission its aging cruisers and reinvest the money into new ship construction, even as its Senate counterpart took the opposite approach, setting up a debate that puts at stake billions of dollars in spending.
The House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee announced Tuesday that its language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act would not prohibit the Navy from retiring any of its cruisers.
The Navy had wanted to decommission some of them in accordance with previous schedules, and retire others early because their modernization work is growing increasingly expensive and time-consuming, and because the aging platforms aren’t giving the sea service enough reliability or combat credibility for a modern fight.
In total, the service asked to retire seven cruisers in fiscal 2022.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has not released its full NDAA language but said in a summary that its bill “prohibits the early retirement of naval vessels unless the Secretary of the Navy makes certain certifications to Congress.” It’s unclear if that measure would apply to just the two cruisers the Navy wants to retire before their modernization work is complete, or if it applies to all seven cruisers on the chopping block.
A HASC aide told reporters Tuesday that the sea power subcommittee’s language contains “nothing that prevents the Navy from retiring the cruisers. If you asked [subcommittee Chairman Joe] Courtney, he’s looked at this very closely: He’s listened to the Navy, he recognizes the capability that would be lost if we lose the cruisers, but in his mind, [with] the cruisers we really have not gotten the life extension that we hoped to get when we did the service life extension on the cruisers. So it’s a very expensive bill: about $1.5 billion over the [five-year Future Years Defense Program] to even maintain just those two that were in the cruiser modernization plan. So Chairman Courtney is not of the opinion that we should be restricting those retirements.”
Another aide said during the call that sea power subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., still hasn’t made up his mind on the issue. The aide said Wittman recognizes the significant bill associated with keeping the cruisers, but due to their significant missile-launching capacity — which the aide said rivals the entire British Royal Navy’s surface strike fleet — “he has some pause with regards to getting rid of this cruiser force structure. So I think it’s something we’re still considering as we go into the full committee mark.”
The language released Tuesday is the subcommittee’s contribution to the FY22 NDAA. Each subcommittee will mark up their respective sections this week. The full committee section will be released ahead of a planned Sept. 1 markup.
More broadly, HASC had seen internal tension regarding the path forward for the Navy. Some lawmakers, including committee Vice Chair and former Navy officer Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., argued the service needs to focus on near-term capacity, with a potential fight against China looming this decade. HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has leaned the other way, saying the Navy shouldn’t have a bigger fleet than it can afford within its means.
This fight between capacity, capability and readiness is playing out within congressional committees — and will soon play out between the committees as they take different approaches in their FY22 bills.
The Navy says its FY22 spending proposal created a ready fleet today, with some money for developing new and more lethal weapons and little focus on growing the size of the fleet because doing so would create unaffordable manning and maintenance bills, which would haunt the service if it continues to see flat budgets.
Another HSAC aide told reporters Tuesday that the sea power subcommittee recognizes the service isn’t seeing the budgets it needs to support previous plans to produce a 355-plus-ship fleet, and that the panel can support measures needed to keep a smaller but ready fleet.
“In our viewpoint, we would prefer to see more of a reinvestment in the new construction side. I think there are efficiencies that can be found elsewhere in the Navy’s top line, even with the flat budget, that could go to increasing shipbuilding. But that’s going to be a continued dialogue and debate we’re going to have, I think not only this year but in future budgets, on what the right level of growth is for the fleet,” the aide said.
The subcommittee recommended in its language the addition of a second Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to the spending plan, but that decision won’t be made until the full committee language and spending tables are complete. The Navy had planned to buy two destroyers in FY22 but instead asked for funding for just one this spring, in an acknowledgement that it didn’t have the money for the ship given all its needs to pay for maintenance, operations, manning and other growing costs.
The House Appropriations Committees’ defense subcommittee slammed the Navy in a report that accompanied its FY22 defense spending plan, saying that “for the second consecutive fiscal year, the Navy has chosen to remove a major ship procurement from the budget request rather than make difficult funding decisions in a fiscally constrained environment. This represents a troubling trend of underfunding ship acquisition programs and then requesting the removed ship as the highest priority on the unfunded priority list. Furthermore, removing the ship from the budget request breaks the program’s multi-year procurement contract, which adversely impacts the already fragile domestic shipbuilding industrial base.”
The defense subpanel chose to add the destroyer back in but take the required $1.5 billion from “multiple” Navy programs to fund it. The aides could not disclose yet where the funding would come from to pay for the added destroyer, pending the full committee language and funding tables.
Another HASC aide on Tuesday echoed the subpanel’s sentiments, saying the HASC sea power bill does not contain any similar language, but “in my opinion, we couldn’t have said it any better than the HAC-D did.”
“We’ve been disappointed for now the second year in a row where the Navy, in our opinion, is gaming Congress in, one, dropping a Virginia-class submarine last year, and then a destroyer this year,” the aide said. “I think it’s a dangerous game for the Navy to play. I don’t think it’s guaranteed that when they do these types of taking stuff out at the last minute and then depending on Congress to put it back, that that’s always going to be the case. The Virginia-class submarine was a good example where that was not a done deal; it took a yearlong fight internally here in Congress — I shouldn’t say fight — a deliberation whether or not we had the money ... to add it back in.”
HASC’s sea power subpanel also did not take a stance on the four littoral combat ships the Navy wants to decommission early, though HAC-D spared three of the four in its bill.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.