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Congressional chaos costs Navy millions

Jan. 6, 2013 - 01:34PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 6, 2013 - 01:34PM  |  
Having failed to produce timely defense spending bills or avoid a chaotic end to a year-long march toward sequestration, the recently-deceased 112th Congress also failed for two straight years to approve a normally prosaic measure allowing the transfers of old U.S. Navy ships (like the USS Carr, shown above) to friendly navies.
Having failed to produce timely defense spending bills or avoid a chaotic end to a year-long march toward sequestration, the recently-deceased 112th Congress also failed for two straight years to approve a normally prosaic measure allowing the transfers of old U.S. Navy ships (like the USS Carr, shown above) to friendly navies. (U.S. Navy)
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Having failed to produce timely defense spending bills or avoid a chaotic end to a yearlong march toward sequestration, the recently deceased 112th Congress also failed to approve a normally prosaic measure allowing the transfers of old Navy ships to friendly navies.

Failure of the transfer bill means the Navy will now need to spend millions of dollars, U.S. ship repairers won't get a hefty dose of foreign work, and allied countries won't have the chance — at least for now — to avail themselves of surplus Navy warships.

At issue is the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2012, a short, straightforward bill that lays out, by name and hull number, which ships the U.S. wants to transfer, what countries they would go to, and the terms of the transfer — loan, grant or sale. The measure long was a regular part of the annual defense authorization bills, but for the past few years has been submitted separately in order to give congressional foreign relations committees a chance to consider them.

This year's proposal, to transfer 10 Oliver Hazard Perry-class to Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey, was sent to Capitol Hill on June 4 and referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. There it languished for nearly seven months until New Year's Eve when — only because Congress was in session to debate the so-called fiscal cliff situation — it was brought to the floor of the House for debate and a vote.

In remarks Dec. 31 to introduce the bill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the committee, noted concerns about the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. But she also commented on Turkey's support for coalition anti-piracy and NATO operations.

Each frigate transferred, Ros-Lehtinen said, will require $40 million to $80 million in repairs and refurbishment, money spent almost entirely in the U.S. Each ship also, she added, has "the potential for millions more in follow-on services, equipment, and training."

Without the transfers, Ros-Lehtinen said, the alternative "is to place the decommissioned ships into cold storage or have them be sunk. Navy funding is required for both the storage and the sinking option."

The cost to inactivate each ship, according the Naval Sea Systems Command, is about $1.1 million, with annual maintenance costs of about $30,000.

Rendering the ships environmentally safe for recycling or sinking also would bring a hefty price tag.

None of the 10 ships has yet been decommissioned. The U.S. and receiving navies prefer a "hot transfer" situation, whereby the U.S. Navy decommissions its ship, walks its crew off, papers are signed, a new, non-U.S, crew walks aboard and raises the receiving nation's flag. No inactivation costs are incurred during such a turnover.

Three of the 10 frigates, the Curts, Halyburton and Carr, are set to decommission early this year — the Curts in January, and the other two in March.

The other frigates are set to leave active U.S. service over the next two years.

No deals have been set for the ship's transfers — they can't be arranged until the legislation is passed and signed into law.

Approval of the transfer act does not transfer the ship — it merely means lawmakers have approved the proposed plan. The Navy, State Department and the foreign nation are then free to work out the details of the transfer. If any of the parties don't agree, or the foreign nation decides it doesn't want the ship, the deal doesn't happen.

But without Congressional approval, no deal can be arranged.

The House, on Dec. 31, approved the measure by voice vote and sent it to the Senate, where it was expected to pass easily if it could be brought to the floor for a vote. But an unknown senator put a last-minute hold on the bill, effectively killing it, and the measure appears to have expired on Jan. 3, along with the 112th Congress.

While some Hill sources on Jan. 4 were unclear what the future held for the bill, others said the measure was dead. An entirely new bill would need to be submitted under the new Congress, sworn into office on the 3rd.

"These things usually are not controversial," a Hill source said about the annual vessel transfer bills, even though negative comments are often made in debate about one country or the other.

No mention was made in the House debate about Mexico, Taiwan or Thailand. Two lawmakers expressed concerns about Turkey — one for its relations with Israel, the other for threats against Cyprus — concerns also expressed by conservative Greek organizations lobbying against the Turkish transfers.

Objections about Turkish policies are not unusual, but Turkey is a traditional U.S. ally and NATO partner which has been the recipient over the years of dozens of ex-U.S. warships, and the Turkish Navy already operates eight Perry-class frigates.

The 10 frigates included in the 2012 transfer request, the countries they would have been authorized for, with their scheduled decommission dates, are:

• Curts (FFG 38); Grant to Mexico; Jan. 25, 2013

• Halyburton (FFG 40); Grant to Turkey; March 22, 2013

• Mcclusky (FFG 41); Grant to Mexico; Fiscal year 2014

• Thach (FFG 43); Grant to Turkey; Fiscal year 2014

• Rentz (FFG 46); Grant to Thailand; Fiscal year 2014

• Vandegrift (FFG 48); Grant to Thailand; Fiscal year 2015

• Taylor (FFG 50); Sale to Taiwan; Fiscal year 2015

• Gary (FFG 51); Sale to Taiwan; Fiscal year 2015

• Carr (FFG 52); Sale to Taiwan; March 15, 2013

• Elrod (FFG 55); Sale to Taiwan; Fiscal year 2015

Cruiser question still unsettled

An entirely different issue remains hanging in the air, thanks both to congressional action and inaction.

Authorizers denied the Navy's request to decommission seven cruisers and two amphibious ships in 2013 and 2014 as a cost-cutting measure.

The defense act signed into law Jan. 2 by President Obama restored funding to operate the cruisers Cowpens, Anzio and Vicksburg, all previously scheduled to be taken out of service in 2013, and prohibits the Navy from spending any money to inactivate the ships or a fourth cruiser, the Port Royal.

While the first three cruisers, along with the Gettysburg, Chosin and Hue City, made the list because they have yet to receive significant combat system upgrades, the Port Royal — newest of the Navy's 22 missile cruisers — is on the list because of damage incurred in 2009 when she went aground a reef in Hawaii off the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor. The Navy spent more than $24 million to repair the ship, but problems continued even after the repairs were complete. The Navy would like to retire the cruiser rather than continue trying to fix her.

The sense on the Hill generally is to let the Port Royal go, but before that, the new legislation requires the Navy to submit a detailed report on the ship's material condition and what it would take to conduct further repairs.

While passage of the authorization act would seem to put off, at least for now, the possibility of retiring the cruisers, the 2013 defense spending bill has yet to be passed. Appropriators aren't expected to take up the measure until February or March, and even then the possibility exists no detailed money bill will get through Congress, mired down by future sequestration debates and the 2014 budget, which would normally come in February.

Until a spending bill passes, the fate of the cruisers remains in the balance.

The Navy, meanwhile, is maintaining the ships "in a sustainment status," able to take on limited assignments, according to U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

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