Navy: The cruisers must go, that others may stay

The brass makes a tough choice to give up prized ships in order to better run the ones that will remain.

The Navy’s proposal to decommission seven Aegis cruisers was “an extremely difficult choice for us to make,” but it must be done to protect what the Navy calls the “wholeness” of the rest of its fleet, top commanders told Congress Thursday.

Navy logistics and readiness boss Vice Adm. Bill Burke told a House Armed Services Committee panel that the surface force is banking on the money and sailors it would save from the ships going away — along with its now-fully funded request for ship maintenance — to help continue to dig the fleet out of its longstanding readiness problems.

“The cruiser retirements were an extremely difficult choice for us to make, but our goal was to balance readiness, procurment and the personnel priorities within our budget controls to still meet global force management and avoid a hollow force,” Burke said.

The Navy can free up about $4 billion by not keeping the ships, he said, even though they have 10 or even 15 years of life left — and the Navy’s recent top goal has been squeezing the most good from everything in today’s fleet. The ships need comprehensive upgrades and they’re suffering from the infamous cracks in their aluminum superstructures, so Burke said the brass had to swallow hard and let them go.

He’s not kidding: Although Secretary Panetta and other DoD-level officials have pooh-poohed the “older, less-capable” cruisers, these ships have long commanded a special status in the surface force. When certain kinds of Navy officers at desks in the Pentagon close their eyes for a moment of pause, they picture themselves on the bridge of a cruiser as the ship turns at high speed on a sunny afternoon off Southern California.

Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, who chaired Thursday’s hearing, wants that daydream to remain a reality for six of the seven ships slated to go away. (We’ll get to the seventh in a moment.) He said his committee staff has calculated that it would cost about $592 million in FY 13 and $859 million in FY 14 to upgrade the six ships and keep them around for the rest of their service lives. Compare that against more than $2 billion for a single new destroyer and it seems like a no-brainer, he argued.

Maybe, Burke said, but he said Forbes’ estimates didn’t cover the cost of operating the ships, or fielding helicopters with them, and said the bottom line was this: With seven fewer cruisers and fully funded maintenance budgets, the surface Navy could finally slay the readiness and maintenance demons that have been plaguing it for the past decade. He and Naval Sea Systems Command boss Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy said the fleet is turning the corner on its readiness problem, and deviating from the latest plans could throw a monkey wrench into that effort.

“It was a terribly difficult choice,” Burke said. “We didn’t want to make it. But in order to maintain readiness of all the forces we chose to decrement our Navy by a couple [of cruisers] … If we didn’t do this, if we kept too many, we’d be under-maintaining all of them and we’d end up down the road having a bigger problem than we have today.”

As for the seventh ship, Thursday’s hearing made clear that the poor cruiser USS Port Royal is a goner no matter what. Forbes’ estimates deliberately excluded the cost to upgrade it, and none of the Navy witnesses seemed to even consider keeping it around past its scheduled mothball date next year. The Port Royal ran hard aground off Honolulu in 2009 and its repairs cost the Navy tens of millions of dollars, but by all accounts, the ship has never been the same. As it sat stuck on the coral reef, the tide rocked and shook the cruiser and all of its onboard equipment, damaging it more than might have initially been apparent. The Port Royal eventually returned to service, but the Navy’s mothball decision and Thursday’s hearing apparently confirmed the brass wants to just cut its losses.

The sad twist for the surface Navy — taking Burke and McCoy at their word that it’s turning the corner — is that even a smaller, better-maintained fleet still falls far short of the oft-discussed “demand signal” from the combatant commanders. Under questioning from Forbes, Burke said that it would take a fleet of 500 ships to meet the “demand” from the various military areas of operation around the world. If everything goes the Navy’s way, it hopes to build a fleet of 300 ships by 2019.

So it’s the old standoff: Will Congress ultimately force service officials to keep ships they don’t want, having absorbed — in this case — the Navy’s years of arguments that “quantity is a capability all its own?” As we saw this week, lawmakers have asked the Pentagon not to implement any of its planned changes until the Hill gives its go-ahead, so there may be still more talk of keeping these once-prized warships the Navy says must go.