A reported proposal to mothball a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier halfway through its 50-year service life is already drawing fire from key members of Congress.
News reports indicate President Donald Trump wants to skip the midlife overhaul of the USS Harry S. Truman, scheduled to begin around 2024 at Newport News Shipbuilding, and wants to retire the carrier to save money.
According to The Washington Post, the proposal is a compromise offered after Patrick Shanahan, acting defense secretary, opposed the recently announced plan to purchase two aircraft carriers at once. The Washington Post didn’t name the targeted carrier, but a subsequent story in Breaking Defense named Truman as that ship, citing a source.
Retiring the Truman would reduce the carrier fleet from 11 to 10 — a course reversal from two years ago, when Trump visited the Newport News shipyard and called for a 12-carrier fleet.
The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole U.S. builder and refueler of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
The Navy this week said it would have no comment on the matter because the president hasn’t submitted his budget.
Lawmakers suggested the idea is already dead in the water.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., chairs the House Armed Services seapower panel, where any proposal would get its initial hearing. Courtney noted that Truman entered service in 1998 and isn’t ready to be scrapped.
“In carrier dog years, it’s just a puppy,” he said in an email.
Further, federal law states the Navy must keep no less than 11 operational aircraft carriers. The Navy’s own force assessment in 2016 included a requirement for 12.
If an early-retirement proposal is submitted, “the seapower subcommittee will want to hear directly from the Navy why they believe we can shrink the fleet below statutory and strategic requirements,” Courtney said.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, is the top GOP member of the seapower panel and spearheaded the push toward a 355-ship Navy. Keeping these midlife overhauls on schedule is necessary to meet the demands from commanders around the world, he said.
“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,” he said.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia Beach, said the reports came as a surprise. An early retirement of the Truman “would be out of step with the administration’s own national security strategy and national defense strategy. I would oppose such an action and will continue to fulfill my oversight role to keep our military strong.”
Sen. Tim Kaine questioned the administration’s logic.
“These reports, which I just heard yesterday, are really puzzling,” he said during a conference call with reporters Thursday.
The Pentagon just recently awarded a $15.2 billion contract as part of a two-carrier purchase, and “you wouldn’t do that unless you intended to maintain the 11-carrier Navy,” he said.
“It’s just a waste of the investment if you do not refuel a carrier that has another 25 years of life,” he said.
This idea came up several years ago when the Navy considered early retirement for the USS George Washington due to pending budget cuts. Members of Congress lined up against the proposal and secured funding for the Washington’s overhaul.
Sen. Mark R. Warner said Congress deserves an explanation on the Truman. While he welcomed cost-saving moves that don’t hurt readiness, he said this move “appears to go against the approach the Pentagon took when it recently decided to block buy two aircraft carriers — a smart, cost-saving investment in the Navy’s effort to grow the U.S. Fleet.”
The work done during a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) represents 35 percent of all maintenance and modernization during a carrier’s 50-year service life. Every corner of the ship gets a significant upgrade.
The George Washington is currently undergoing an RCOH, and that job that will cost in excess of $4 billion and take about four years. It arrived at the yard in 2017.
Next in line is the USS John C. Stennis. Advance work on that project has already begun. The Truman would arrive after Stennis and remain at the shipyard from 2024 to 2028, according to estimates.
Apart from national security implications, the early retirement of an aircraft carrier would ripple through the Hampton Roads economy.
Shipyard officials have often stressed that RCOH work should proceed without interruption from carrier to carrier to avoid dips in workload that might lead to layoffs.
Sending a Norfolk-based carrier into early retirement would also affect thousands of sailors and their families.
Beci Brenton, an HII spokeswoman, said she couldn’t speculate on what was in the president’s budget.
An RCOH is “an extremely complex engineering and construction project which involves more than 680 suppliers from 40 states providing material and services critical to the overhaul process,” she said in a statement. “The stability of this industrial base is critical to our ability to continue to build and maintain the Navy fleet our Navy and nation needs.”
© 2019 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.