The USS Vicksburg is one of four cruisers scheduled to leave service in 2013. Congress is likely to prevent the Navy from decommissioning the Vicksburg and five other cruisers. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
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A Navy move to decommission nine warships and save more than $4 billion over the next five years remained in abeyance as Congress wraps up its defense work for 2012, leaving service leaders to ponder how they'll proceed should lawmakers keep most of the ships in service.
The moves were part of the Navy's 2013 budget request, submitted last February. Under Pentagon pressure to reduce expenditures, the service wants to decommission seven of the Navy's 22 guided-missile cruisers and two of 12 landing ship dock amphibious ships.
Four of the cruisers were to be decommissioned in March 2013: the Cowpens, Anzio, Vicksburg and Port Royal. Three other cruisers, the Gettysburg, Chosin and Hue City, along with the amphibious ships Whidbey Island and Tortuga, would go in fiscal 2014.
Not only would the Navy save the costs of maintaining, operating and upgrading the ships, but about 3,150 seagoing billets would be eliminated. Each cruiser has a crew of about 330 sailors, while the amphibs have crews of about 420.
But Congress balked, and both House and Senate defense authorization bills include language keeping the Navy from spending any money to decommission or inactivate eight of the nine ships.
The exception is the cruiser Port Royal, severely damaged after grounding on a reef outside the entrance to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 2009. The Navy spent more than $24 million to repair the ship, but problems persist. Now, despite being the newest Ticonderoga-class cruiser, the ship should be scrapped, all parties agree.
The Navy agreed in September to hold up the 2013 decommissionings pending a resolution with Congress. Both houses have passed an authorization bill keeping the ships running — a provision certain to survive House-Senate conference negotiations — but no appropriations bill has been passed, and most observers don't see a spending bill happening until March, when the continuing resolution funding the government will expire.
But even if Congress grants funds to keep the ships in service, the Navy already has been moving to realize the savings it wants from the 2013 reductions.
"Just because of the simple decision that you may keep four cruisers and you multiply that times X amount in there, and then you have 1,200 people that you otherwise thought were going to leave that year, those people were already being figured into where they were going to go for follow-on orders," said Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, deputy chief of naval operations for manpower, personnel, training and education, in a Dec. 4 interview.
Personnel Command is evaluating its options should the ships remain in service, Van Buskirk said.
"We're watching that very closely and seeing where we need to hedge in terms of our people and how we're going to distribute them," he said. "But is it disruptive? Sure."
And if the service needs to keep more than 2,800 sailors to man the eight ships, it may have to adjust the total end strength number.
"It goes back to an end strength discussion," Van Buskirk said. "You've hit on a topic that we're very much involved in right now in terms of the manpower and personnel and training and education dynamic of keeping ships that we otherwise thought we weren't going to be keeping."
Maintaining and upgrading the ships also will be a challenge, at least initially, said a top fleet maintainer.
"If any number of the cruisers remains in the inventory and money is restored to maintain those ships and get them back into an operational state, there is going to be a lag in the time that that takes," Rear Adm. Dave Gale, commander of the Navy's regional maintenance command, told the Navy League's Seapower magazine in an interview published in December. "If we're going to keep four and [we're given] the money to maintain them, the maintenance availability to be able to execute that is going to take us about a year to 18 months to actually get ready for.
"Since we were going to take those ships out of the inventory, the budgets to maintain them went away at the same time," Gale said. "If they decide to keep them, just putting the budget back in play doesn't mean that they instantly become maintained and ready assets. It is going to take some time to restore those ships to a fully maintained status."
Looming behind the immediate decision of what to do with the ships and their people is the continuing need for the Navy to slash its budget — part of a Pentagon plan to reduce overall military spending. If the ships are restored, that requirement won't go away.
"They still need to look for the savings elsewhere," noted one congressional observer.