WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has tried to convince Congress to let it decommission the cruiser fleet by making cost-based arguments.
It’s tried readiness-based arguments, too, noting the drain on the ship repair industry.
Congress largely hasn’t been swayed, continuing to limit how many cruisers can be retired before the end of their 35-year service lives.
Now, the Navy is trying a new angle: the safety of the men and women onboard.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said March 9 the service does not want to continue to operate some of its worst-off cruisers because it’s no longer safe.
“The wear and tear is significant, and the safety of our people in the United States Navy always has to come first in times of peace, without question. And so it would be irresponsible to continue to upgrade some of those platforms today at great risk to personnel safety,” he said at the McAleese Defense Programs Conference.
Del Toro said those who question the Navy’s desire to retire these old and worn-out ships haven’t experienced for themselves “the challenge of having to repair ships of that age.”
“If we tried to repair those ships at a cost that far exceeds the investment to go buy something else that’s new, why would you do that?” he said, likening the situation to someone who won’t give up their beloved 20-year-old car, even though it needs $1,000 in repairs every time it’s taken in for an oil change and it lacks all the latest safety features and technologies of new cars.
“At some point, you gotta let it go,” he said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday spoke immediately afterwards at the conference. Asked by Defense News to detail those safety concerns, he said one cruiser in the fleet had to stop during its deployment for voyage repairs because water was coming in below the water line into a berthing area.
Another destroyer had to pause its deployment for repairs when water started coming in below the water line into a main engine room.
A third — cruiser Vella Gulf last year — had to return to its home port twice at the start of a carrier strike group deployment because of cracks in the ship’s fuel tanks.
Gilday also said the Ticonderoga class of cruisers is doing little to contribute to modern warfighting needs, despite lawmakers’ argument that they haul around 122 vertical launching system cells each and ought to remain in the fight to deter potential adversaries like China.
“You have to see the threat to knock it down. So SPY-1A, SP-1B [radars are] just not sufficient given the threat we’re facing,” Gilday said.
He also reiterated that the cruisers wreak havoc on maintenance funding and the ship repair industry’s capacity. Seven cruisers are in some phase of an extended service-life extension and modernization effort, which is not only requiring significant manpower at private repair yards but is also running years late and costing tens of millions of dollars a year more than the Navy budgeted.
“They’re eating us alive in terms of our ability to get maintenance back on track, which is where we need to be,” Gilday said of the cruisers. “We are paying tens of millions of dollars beyond what we expected to because of growth work and new work on ships that are beyond their service life.”
Gilday said his desire to decommission these ships and reinvest the money elsewhere in — dubbed divest to invest — has been mischaracterized.
He argued he’s not taking a perfectly good ship and trading it in for the potential for a future ship. Rather, with the cruisers not contributing much to operations, not being reliable or safe and eating into readiness funding for other ships, Gilday argued it’s an easy decision to ditch these ships today. Then, as a separate next decision, he said money that would otherwise pay for cruiser operations and maintenance could be reinvested into future readiness, lethality and capacity.
He said he’s worked to achieve a balanced fleet that is only as large as the Navy can afford to man and maintain. Lawmakers’ desire to keep the cruisers for the sake of bolstering the ship count are undermining that effort.
Harkening back to the days of sequestration, he said, “If capacity becomes king again in a static budget environment, we’re going to go back to where we were in 2013, and we’re going to pay for that capacity with manpower at sea, with weapons in magazines and with respect to readiness and maintenance. I just won’t go back.”
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.