WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering requiring the U.S. Navy to better defend its requests to retire ships before the end of their expected service lives.
In the full text of its Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, released Sept. 22 after being passed by the committee on July 22, SASC would allow the Navy to retire ships early only if the secretary of the Navy signs a waiver certifying that:
‘’(A) maintaining the battle force ship in a reduced operating status is not feasible; (B) maintaining the ship with reduced capability is not feasible; (C) maintaining the ship as a Navy Reserve unit is not feasible; (D) transferring the ship to the Coast Guard is not feasible; (E) maintaining the ship is not required to support the most recent national defense strategy required by section 113(g) of this title; and (F) maintaining the ship is not required to support operational plans of any combatant commander.”
The secretary would also have to elaborate on the last two points, explaining how losing the ship would still allow the Navy to meet its obligations to regional combatant commanders and to the overall defense strategy.
This language follows the Navy’s request to decommission seven cruisers and four littoral combat ships in FY22.
The four LCSs are young ships; the oldest, Fort Worth, was commissioned nine years ago, and the youngest, Little Rock, was commissioned just four years ago. The LCS was built for 25 years of operations. Though the Navy says it doesn’t have the money to fix up these particular hulls for combat in a contested environment, lawmakers have argued the ships would be helpful to use in U.S. Southern Command, for example, assisting the Coast Guard in conducting anti-trafficking missions.
Some of the seven cruisers have reached the end of their service lives while others would be retired early. In fact, some of the total 22 cruisers in the fleet have gone through life-extension programs and others haven’t, creating confusion about what counts as retiring a ship early and what counts as just getting rid of ships that are ready for decommissioning.
To address this issue, SASC also included a provision in its NDAA language that would require the Navy to note in its annual long-range shipbuilding plan the current expected service life of each ship — either the original number from when the ship was designed, or the updated service life after the Navy invested time and money into extending the life of a ship, which the Navy has done recently for much of the surface fleet and for some of its submarines.
On the other side of the Hill, the House Armed Services Committee included a provision in its version of the NDAA to fund the maintenance and operations of three cruisers, while allowing the other four and the LCSs to retire. Once the bills are debated and passed in their full chambers, HASC and SASC will meet later this year to hash out the differences between the bills. It’s unclear whether the committees would pick one provision related to decommissioning these cruisers and LCSs or if the two could agree to allow some to be let go now while setting up this longer-term solution for future years.
“It is a broad provision: it is reflective of multiple classes of ships that would be retired before the end of their expected service life, and then clearly with the potential for more to come,” a SASC aide told Defense News. “This is not a provision that would just apply to fiscal year ‘22; it would be in perpetuity, and so if this sort of thing is going to continue into the future, we’re trying to put in place some process for evaluating the appropriateness of getting rid of a ship before the end of its life.”
With tight budgets during a decade of sequestration-related limits, and now with expected flat defense spending in the coming years, the Navy has made many requests to retire existing ships — which cost money to operate, maintain, man, arm and more — and free up money for other priorities, such as developing more modern weapons and platforms.
The Navy has asked to decommission two different aircraft carriers at their halfway point — George Washington in FY15 and Harry S. Truman in FY20. Congress rejected both proposals.
The service has already decommissioned LCS-2, Independence, at 11 years of age and is about to decommission LCS-1, Freedom, at 13 years of age — getting just half the expected service life out of these two platforms. And it spent the better part of the past decade looking to reduce its spending on the cruiser fleet, at times asking to put some of the ships into reduced status and at times asking to retire them early.
The Navy’s most recent attempts to modernize and extend the lives of its cruisers have gone poorly, with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday saying at a HASC hearing this spring “the cruisers right now in the modernization are running 175 percent to 200 percent estimated cost, hundreds of days delayed.”
The Navy has been trying to move the ships from 30 years of service life to 35, but service leaders say the extra five years of operations are becoming not worth the cost and effort — and that the ships themselves are increasingly being sidelined during deployments with emergency maintenance issues.
Gilday has argued that, given budget constraints, the best way for the Navy to meet its obligations under the National Defense Strategy is to focus on the readiness of today’s fleet and developing technology for tomorrow’s fleet, with the size of the fleet being a lesser consideration. That mindset led to the FY22 request to decommission the cruisers and LCSs, though it hasn’t sat well with lawmakers concerned the Navy could have to face off with China in the next decade and won’t have a large enough fleet to do so.
Though this SASC provision wouldn’t prevent this debate over capacity from happening each year, it would provide some structure to the discussion and ask the Navy to pitch its request in terms of other options are available and how the decision fits in with the defense strategy.
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.