An MH-60S Sea Hawk hovers above the bow of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush during flight operations in 2010. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that budget cuts could mean the number of carrier strike groups could be dropped from today's 11 to 'eight or nine.' (MC2 Micah P. Blechner/Navy)
At first, the statement is shocking: “Reduce the number of carrier strike groups from 11 to 8 or 9, draw down the Marine Corps from 182,000 to between 150,000 and 175,000.”
But those words on July 31 from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brought into the open some of the behind-the-scenes discussions that have been going on at the Pentagon for some months. Hagel and other senior Defense Department officials continue to stress no decisions have been made out of the Strategic Choices and Management Review, but the everything-is-on-the-table nature of the discussions is becoming clearer.
Or is it? Beyond top-line statements, hardly any real details were released, leaving room for speculation on the effects of adhering to the 10-year, 10 percent-a-year budget cuts required of sequestration. One reason, many observers feel, is that talking about a specific potential cut could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even the acknowledgment that an eight-carrier fleet is on the table, some fear, could turn that once-unthinkable idea into a reality.
The 11-carrier fleet is established by law, but legislation also requiring substantial budget cuts leads inevitably to a flattop reduction. And it’s not just the carrier — it’s air wings with seven or so squadrons of aircraft, it’s a cruiser and three or four destroyers, and it’s the crews. Substantial savings would be found from reducing nearly 10,000 personnel billets with the elimination of each strike group.
Reducing the air wings would ease carrier acquisition, maintenance and recapitalization. The fleet of legacy F/A-18 Hornet aircraft — mostly C models — could be swiftly retired, leaving an all-Super Hornet fleet of Es and Fs that itself could be smaller than what exists today. Retirement of older SH-60 helicopters could also be accelerated.
Dropping the carrier fleet could be done several ways. Two or three ships could simply be ordered to go — likely the oldest ships that have not undergone a refueling overhaul. The older Nimitz-class ships — Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt — are likely safe, having completed their reactor refueling. Abraham Lincoln, which has just begun its overhaul at Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., is likely safe, as the three-year effort has already been largely paid for. But the George Washington, set to begin its refueling overhaul in 2015, would likely go, along with the John C. Stennis and possibly the Harry S. Truman.
Spreading out the current five-year carrier building schedule is dangerous and could actually lead to increased costs. Carriers also have a significant disposal cost.
Even laying up the carriers in mothballs will entail major costs. Reactors, once shut down for a significant time, cannot be restarted due to changes in their metallurgy, so the ships cannot be completely shut down and maintained in reserve. Rather, the reactors would be set to a minimum level and the ships kept at a secure facility, like an active naval base.
Fate of the warships
The Navy’s 22 remaining Aegis cruisers are on the back-half of their projected 30-35 year careers, and the service already is trying to decommission seven.
The first Arleigh Burke-class destroyer entered service in 1991, and the Aegis ships are still being built. Complicating the decision about which ships would be cut are expensive modernization upgrades to the older ships, most of which have already received a ballistic-missile defense capability.
For littoral combat ships, contract options to build them run through LCS 24, and the Navy is considering how to approach the rest of the planned 52-ship force. Options include eliminating one of the two LCS variants, or ending the program at 24.
Cutting the Navy Department means cutting the Marine Corps, which inevitably leads to fewer amphibious ships. While the Navy seeks a 10- or 11-ship big-deck amphibious force, nine are in service today. Peleliu, the oldest assault ship, already is to be replaced by the new America. A reduction to eight big decks would likely mean the Wasp — about to begin a sorely-needed $110 million modernization overhaul — would be decommissioned.
Construction of the 11th and last of the highly capable LPD 17 San Antonio class of amphibious transport docks has begun at HII’s Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., and the ships are nearly as effective as the bigger assault ships, so they would likely survive. But the older dock landing ships of the Whidbey Island class would be on the chopping block — as would be their LSD(X) replacement.
Pentagon support for the nuclear attack submarine force seems to be stronger than ever, and the number of SSNs is not likely to diminish. But the Navy’s desire to incorporate a Virginia Payload Module with four large weapon tubes into Block V Virginia-class ships is threatened. Each VPM would add about $350 million to the cost of each sub, but without the modifications, the four SSGN guided-missile submarines will retire in the 2020s without a replacement.
Also to be decided is the fate of the Ohio-class replacement submarine, a major acquisition effort sitting squarely in the middle of future shipbuilding budgets. The first ship isn’t scheduled to be ordered until 2021, but development costs are significant.