WASHINGTON – Good Evening, Drifters
I’m back in the Continental United States for at least the next couple months and that’s a good thing. There really is no place like home.
This week a topic arose that was put to bed in 2014 but has reared its head once again: decommissioning a carrier early as a means of saving money. In 2013, when this came up last, it was due to sequestration cuts. Today, it’s not exactly clear what is spurring it, except that the Navy is always looking for change under the couch cushions.
There are some clues scattered across the interwebs as to where this came from. We’ll get into that in today’s Navigation Brief.
Before we do, however, I want to thank you all for continuing to read and stay engaged with my little email project. I also want welcome new subscribers. If you have any feedback or questions, don’t hesitate to reach out. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closing the Washington Monument
So, the Navy wants to decommission the Harry S. Truman, eh?
From the moment Sydney Freedberg published his article heralding a baffling decision to cancel the carrier’s midlife refueling to save $30 billion over 25 years, I was skeptical. After tracking this issue through the day and watching what my fellow reporters have unearthed, I remain skeptical that this is a serious proposal.
I immediately defaulted to the most obvious answer, which is that tried and true Washington budget scam known as the “Washington Monument Strategy.” The Washington Monument Strategy is a game that was described by then-Washington Post writer Jonathan Bernstein at the height of the 2013 sequester debacle.
Excerpt: A Washington Monument strategy involves fighting against budget cuts by focusing, and if possible shifting cuts, to the most popular and visible services an agency provides — thus the Park Service would react to a budget cut by threatening to close the Washington Monument, figuring that disappointed tourists would flood their Member of Congress’s office complaining about it.
But how does it apply here? Well, I can’t say for sure but there are some clues. Here is my best guess based on the available information. Don’t hold me to it:
This is a game that the Navy knows how to play. The services regularly leave things out of the budget that are popular as a way of meeting their topline, which is dictated to them by the White House and Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of these things end up on what is known as the unfunded priorities list
By failing to fund a popular program as part of the regular budget submission, they are hoping that Congress will add it back in during the authorization and appropriations process. Occasionally in hearings, Congressman “A” will castigate Admiral “B” for failing to adequately fund priority “X”, and Admiral “B” will and say that he agrees that priority “X” is important but that in a time of constrained budgets, well the Navy must make hard choices. And Congressman “A” says that’s a disgrace, says Congress isn’t doing its job and gets Priority “X” slipped into into the appropriations bill
It’s a passive-aggressive way to end-around the Executive Branch budget overlords, but it gets the job done.
So how does this apply to Harry S. Truman and her midlife overhaul.
David Ignatius over at the Washington Post, in a fawning opinion piece singing the praises of acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (He “could be what the Pentagon needs”) revealed that killing the Truman’s midlife overhaul was the price for getting Shanahan to sign off on the two-carrier block buy. (See more on the block buy here.)
Excerpt: Shanahan’s biggest test yet will be the budget for the fiscal year that begins in October. Plans call for buying two new aircraft carriers, a vastly expensive purchase of what critics say are vulnerable platforms. Shanahan opposed buying the carriers in internal debates, but facing opposition, he settled for a compromise: The Navy will shelve plans to rehab one of its midlife carriers, potentially saving as much as $4 billion.
Sam LaGrone over at USNI dug up some other reporting that seemed to track with Ignatius’s piece and adding some of his own reporting.
Excerpt: In late January, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that OSD was considering a delay in the Truman RCOH to direct funds to more modern weapon systems and left open the possibility that the RCOH would only be delayed and not abandoned altogether. However, several sources told USNI News on Thursday that the complexities and difficulties in the process of moving the spent fuel out of the carrier and refueling it would likely mean that if Truman missed the RCOH window, the carrier would cease to be operationally relevant.
So, you see what’s happened here: The deal with Shanahan appears to be that the Navy would delay the Truman’s overhaul to spare the cost of the refueling in exchange for Shanahan signing off on the block buy. But, according to LaGrone’s sources, failing to refuel the Truman will leave the ship operationally irrelevant. The only logical thing to do with an irrelevant ship is to decommission it. So here we are with this baffling proposal to decom the Truman, which is only 21 years old, all because of a deal the Navy appears to have cut with Shanahan over the block buy, according to David Ignatius.
Enter: The Washington Monument Strategy.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Congress will allow the Navy to decommission the Truman, and even delaying the refueling will, in all likelihood, be unpalatable to Congress. In fact, there is a great deal more evidence to suggest that Congress would strongly oppose the deal.
The last time the Navy tried to decommission a carrier early was in 2013 when it tried to scrap the George Washington instead of refueling her. Congress went ballistic and the White House eventually backed off the proposal. George Washington entered her refueling and complex overhaul in August 2017.
The Navy may have agreed to propose delaying the Truman’s refueling, which morphed into decommissioning her, but they would have known that Congress would almost certainly not allow it to happen.
My colleague Joe Gould and I reported today that Rep. Joe Courtney, the Connecticut democrat who chairs House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee told us that there was “zero” chance that his subcommittee would allow the measure to go through. Now, that wouldn’t stop HASC Chairman Adam Smith from putting it back in, but why would he buck Courtney?
And the proposal isn’t flying with the subcommittee’s ranking member either. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, told USNI that “Keeping refueling and complex overhauls on schedule and advanced procurement funded properly is critical to meeting combatant commander’s demand for carrier strike groups. We have made a significant investment in these ships, and I am perplexed why anyone would consider taking the cornerstone of the United States Naval Force and allowing it to atrophy.”
Courtney and Wittman are both influential members of the HASC and it seems likely that they will go to the mat on this one. It would seem there is little chance that the Navy would be allowed to make any moves to decommission Harry S. Truman or delay its overhaul. On the contrary, now that this story is in the press, I see a greater chance that language will be inserted in the NDAA specifically directing the Navy to begin preparations for the Truman’s 2024 refueling.
And then so much for that deal with Shanahan, I guess.
Now, that’s just the available information and perhaps more will be revealed soon. It will be interesting to see how this is proposed in the FY20 budget rollout. Stay tuned for more.
On to The Hotwash.