WASHINGTON — After two of the four congressional defense committees have debated their fiscal 2023 bills, two key U.S. Navy issues have surfaced as the most contentious: the Navy’s plan to decommission 24 ships in one year and its decision to cancel a sea-launched low-yield nuclear weapon.
On the nuclear weapons program, the Navy is arguing it does not want a new mission of hauling around nuclear weapons similar in size to those dropped on Japan in 1945, arguing its attack submarine and destroyer fleets are busy enough with their traditional mission sets. Some military leaders, though, say they should have another option at their disposal to deter Russia and China, who field low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.
The House Appropriations Committee agreed with the Pentagon proposal to cut research and development funding for the weapon, though the Senate Armed Services Committee put $25 million into its bill to continue the R&D effort.
At the same time, the SASC last week prohibited the Navy from decommissioning 12 of the 24 ships on the Navy’s chopping block: five of the nine littoral combat ships proposed for early retirement, as well as four dock landing ships, two expeditionary transfer docks, and one cruiser.
The HAC spared the five LCSs in its bill but did not address the other ships.
The House Armed Services Committee, which will mark up its defense bill Wednesday, has so far voted at the subcommittee level to save the four dock landing ships and one cruiser and will save debate on the other ships for the full committee.
Rep. Rob Wittman spoke to Defense News the day before the House Armed Services Committee will mark up its annual defense policy bill. Wittman, of Virginia, serves as the top Republican on the seapower and projection forces subcommittee and the second highest-ranking Republican on the full committee.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congress and the Defense Department have been split on the fate of the Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear. Where do you and your colleagues on HASC stand on the issue?
Many witnesses at committee hearings stated they believe the SLCM-N is necessary to fill a deterrence gap. There’s nothing between the largest-scale conventional weapon we have and a high-yield nuclear weapon. If your adversaries have that, then they could have the belief that, well, if we deploy a low-yield tactical weapon, that’s not going to provoke the United States because all they have to respond with is a weapon that would certainly put us into full-scale nuclear war.
So I think that you need that, if nothing else, as a deterrent to the Chinese. Their strategic and regional nuclear capabilities continue to grow. They do have a SLCM-N comparable weapon. Credible deterrence has to have a wide range of options. I think you can’t take SLCM-N off the table. I understand some people’s concerns about that, but I certainly think that the ability for us to deter far outweighs whatever concerns folks may have.
How does HASC plan to address the SLCM-N funding issue?
SLCM-N wasn’t in the chairman’s mark from Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, but there will be a push during the markup to restore funding for the program. Everybody from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on down has supported this. U.S. European Command, U.S. Strategic Command commanders. We’re going to be introducing an amendment tomorrow for funding. SASC provided funding last week during their markup; I think that what you’ll find is that HASC will mirror SASC in [its] markup for SLCM-N.
The seapower and projection forces subcommittee already voted to spare five ships from being decommissioned by the Navy, and the full committee is expected to debate barring the Navy from decommissioning some number more. What conversation has the committee had on not only its ability to insert funding to continue operating, manning and maintaining these ships in fiscal 2023 but also into the future?
We looked very carefully at what it would take to sustain these ships. We looked very carefully too at making sure that we are still on the positive side of the ships built versus the ships retired, and I feel pretty confident that’s where we will end up. We fully understand the cost associated with the ships, the maintenance costs. The manning cost is really going to be somewhat of a wash, because you have to man those ships even as they enter the decommissioning process, and fully manning them for operations is not going to be a giant increase. I think that we can accommodate whatever costs are there.
I think the biggest thing is that this divest to reinvest strategy never has a logical connection between getting rid of these legacy platforms and then putting in place new capacity. I am not in any way, shape, or form averse to retiring legacy platforms. But you can’t retire these platforms and then say, oh, we’re going to build the replacement platforms outside the five-year Future Years Defense Program. All of our dreams come true outside the FYDP. And the individuals that are making these recommendations today to retire these platforms are not going to be around when the bill comes due to build them — and remember, too, with inflation and everything else, the cost of replacing those platforms is going to be significantly larger in the future.
The Navy is on a path to shrink its fleet to 280 by FY27, so this debate over saving old ships and building new ships will continue in upcoming years. What do you make of the long-term effort to keep the fleet from shrinking too small?
Shrinking the Navy sends absolutely the wrong message. We’re not opposed to retiring legacy ships; what we are opposed to is a plan to replace that capacity that potentially never comes to fruition. You’re talking about taking the Navy from 297 down to 280 by 2027, and the Chinese are going to be at 460 by that time.
There are arguments that we need to retire older and less capable ships, we can build something that keeps pace with China — you know, you can’t fight something with nothing. So not having a ship, regardless of its capability, becomes a liability.
I think you’ll find in this year’s markup that we will do all that we can to recover some ships proposed for early retirement. We’re not going to buy back wholesale numbers of those ships. What we do want to do, though, is make sure we’re making smart decisions with those ships. We looked very carefully at the economics of buying back older ships and their material condition. I can assure you we’re not going to be buying back stuff that’s going to cost us massive amounts of money to be able to keep in service.
What we also want to do, too, is to make sure the ships that we do retire, I think there’s a great opportunity for foreign military sales, especially to Indo-Pacific countries that could use those ships and would give us an opportunity to operate jointly with them, and with an asset that for them still has lots of service life in it.
What did your effort look like to build a business case for saving some ships and allowing other to retire, based on their material conditions and expected costs?
There’s 25 years of life left in the four Whidbey Island-class dock landing ships the Navy wants to retire. So I don’t think that you need to do a full-scope analysis to look at those and determine they should be kept in the fleet.
On the cruisers, I visited the cruisers, I’ve looked and seen in person their material condition. I think that there’s a pretty sound business case; it doesn’t need a whole big analysis to look at what it would cost to bring those ships back and determine they should retire. But I also believe, too, that when you have a ship like the cruiser Vicksburg that is 85% through its maintenance and upgrade period, it doesn’t make sense to me after that type of investment to retire that ship — to me, that is a waste of the resources that you’ve already put into that ship.
For the littoral combat ships, if you have a ship that that’s only three years old and you want to retire it, and we know what the cost is to replace the combining years, we know the cost to bring that ship up to standard — and then you look at that versus the cost of building a new ship. And then when would that new ship be available? The frigate that would replace the LCSs is years away from operational availability. So that’s how we have looked at it.
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.