Correction: A previous version of the story said the bill would allow the Navy to retire all seven cruisers slated for decommissioning in 2022. An amendment to the bill would fund the maintenance and manning of three of the cruisers, in effect requiring the Navy to keep them in the fleet. The other four would be allowed to decommission as planned, under this legislation.
WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee in its annual defense bill appears ready to let the U.S. Navy begin retiring aging cruisers that are consuming more money but providing less warfighting power and instead focus on maintaining the ships the service still has.
This step is in line with what the chief of naval operations has asked for throughout this abbreviated fiscal 2022 budget cycle.
The committee was originally set to vote on language that would not stop the Navy from decommissioning seven cruisers in FY22 or four littoral combat ships. During the Sept. 1 bill markup, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., offered a $24-billion plus-up amendment that would, among other things, fund maintenance and manning for three of the seven cruisers, in effect asking the Navy to keep them.
In a nod to the committee being ready to let the Navy begin the retirement process, though, another amendment was offered during the 16-and-a-half-hour markup session related to what the Navy will do with the decommissioned hulls.
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., noted “interest on the part of foreign allies in some of these ships which could be beneficial to the US Navy and allied relationships. The Navy has proposed additional retirements of several Littoral Combat ships, as well as Aegis cruisers. Both these classes of ships offer the opportunity for interoperability and commonality with allied navies.”
Kim asked for a report on transferring or leasing these ships to allies in the name of interoperability.
The Navy and Congress have spent nearly a decade debating what to do with the cruisers, with lawmakers consistently pushing the Navy to keep these ships in the fleet and available to commanders for operations.
Even this year there was early pushback from lawmakers on the proposal, though the Navy held firm that the cruisers were just getting too old to be worth the money.
In response to concerns that decommissioning seven cruisers would take seven hulls and 850 missile tubes out of the fight, Vice Adm. Jim Kilby told HASC, “to me, it’s more than just mere vessels: it’s what is this sensor that the ship brings? What are the capabilities of that combat system, and what’s the confidence and reliability we have in that hull to get underway?”
“In 2017, I was the strike group commander for the Carl Vinson Strike Group. My air and missile defense command ship was Lake Champlain,” he continued. “She missed roughly one-third of the deployment because of maintenance things — not because our radar was down, not because our combat system wasn’t capable, not because she didn’t have a full magazine, but she had tank top cracking that required her to get that fixed to be safely underway.”
More recently, Vella Gulf “missed a month of her previous deployment and has missed two and a half months of her current deployment,” said Kilby, who at the time of the June HASC hearing was serving as deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities.
The bill will still have to get through a House floor vote and negotiations with the Senate Armed Services Committee to hash out differences between each chamber’s version of the bill. SASC has not yet revealed the full language of their bill, but an executive summary includes hazy language on the cruiser topic: the bill “prohibits the early retirement of naval vessels unless the Secretary of the Navy makes certain certifications to Congress.”
Rather than focusing on the size of the fleet, which prompted past efforts to spare the cruisers, this year’s bill includes several amendments focused more on improving the readiness of the ships the Navy wants to use.
A proposal from Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., would require an annual report on ship maintenance. The report would list each ship hull and a description of all maintenance planned for the year, the estimated cost, a summary of all ship maintenance conducted the previous year, a list of any deferred maintenance work, the reasons for any availability delays or cancelations, the effects and costs of any delays and cancelations and more.
The Navy until recently has not provided Congress and the public much insight into its maintenance workload. In FY20, the service released its first-ever long-range ship maintenance plan, which, alongside the long-range shipbuilding plan, showed the 30-year forecast of ship construction and repair work for industry and the Navy.
In another amendment, HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., proposed requiring the Navy to send lawmakers a report by March 1 on dry dock requirements and availability for ship maintenance work.
“The committee understands that the Navy has made investments to increase dry dock capacity on the west coast of the United States to meet ship repair surge capacity requirements and support the National Defense Strategy,” the amendment reads. “The committee is concerned that a lack of clarity on how these dry docks will be used and administered could have unintended negative consequences on the private sector maintenance and repair industrial base.”
The report would include projections for upcoming needs for dry docks, circumstances when additional surge capacity would be needed, any Navy plans to increase its own dry dock capacity, and how it will create a consistent and balanced workload for the yards with dry docks to ensure industrial base health.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., the top Republican on the seapower and projection forces subcommittee, pitched an amendment that praises the Navy’s ongoing data analytics efforts to improve readiness issues like on-time ship maintenance.
“Initiatives such as Perform to Plan (P2P) have shown how data driven decisions not only enhance readiness but reduce cost,” he wrote. The amendment asks the Navy secretary to report back to HASC on how the service can “expand these data analytic tools and techniques throughout the ship maintenance enterprise.”
Similarly, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., offered an amendment that noted “it is critical for the United States Navy to leverage technology to identify lifecycle needs and address readiness challenges. The Navy Common Readiness Model, which utilizes modeling, simulation and analytic capabilities to understand and optimize readiness, could allow the Navy to save development, maintenance and sustainment funding and enhance the readiness of our naval platforms and weapon systems.”
The amendment asks for a Navy briefing to the committee on the cost and scope of implementing this readiness model, which platforms and weapons would be included in the model in FY22, and project cost savings and readiness improvements from using the model.
Lawmakers also showed interest in sailor fatigue and retention issues and asked for a handful of reports on those personnel readiness topics, as well.
As for the future fleet, the bill supports buying 13 manned ships compared to the eight the Navy requested. HASC, throughout the NDAA process this year, including in the Rogers amendment, added two destroyers, one amphibious assault ship, two expeditionary fast transport and one oiler more than the administration asked for in its formal budget request, released May 28. It cut one towing and salvage ship, for a total of 13.
HASC also added funding for two Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels, advanced procurement funding to add a third destroyer to the FY23 plans, and submarine industrial base support funding to help ramp up to the capacity to build three boats a year by FY25.
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.