Doubts About the Plan: Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee, waves a copy of the new fleet plan while questioning US Navy officials. (US House Armed Services Committee video)
WASHINGTON — Sometimes it’s all about trust, and right now, the Navy is struggling to convince Congress it’s on the level about a plan to take half the fleet’s 22 cruisers out of service and gradually return them to active duty.
“Our main goal is to know that those cruisers are not being euthanized, that they’re going to actually be modernized,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee, said after a Thursday late-afternoon hearing on the issue. “Don’t tell us we’re going to have these cruisers if there’s no money to bring them out of suspended animation.”
Navy officials want to take 11 cruisers out of service, then gradually modernize and restore them in a phased plan to replace the 11 that would continue running. The Navy claims the plan is necessary to extend the lives of the ships into the mid-2030s, the earliest time a replacement design could begin to be fielded.
Without the plan, the Navy says, all its cruisers will be worn out by the end of the 2020s.
“We can’t afford to get rid of the cruisers,” assured Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top acquisition official, but he repeated the Navy’s argument that the money isn’t there to upgrade all the ships now.
Forbes and others on the committee were clearly skeptical, repeatedly recalling that in 2013 the service asked to get rid of seven of the ships purely for budgetary reasons, with no plans to bring them back.
“I think a lot of people had some confidence issues that this phased modernization was just decommissioning by another name,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.
“Why would you suggest to us that we should have a confidence level” after changing the plan, asked Forbes. “Give me the comfort level of how you’re going to build those ships, then modernize these ships and take them out of layup. You don’t have the money to do that.”
About $3.5 billion is in the future years defense plan for the modernizations, Stackley said — enough to last into 2019. But another $5.3 billion would be needed beyond that.
“I can’t certify for you today that the Congress will fund that,” Stackley said.
The proposed plan is faring poorly as it works its way through Congress, part of the 2015 budget request. House and Senate appropriators and authorizers oppose it, instead pushing different funding plans to modernize the ships and keep them in service.
“The reason we’re doing this is the budget,” Stackley said of the phased modernization plan. “This is trying to strike the best balance with what is a difficult budget environment.”
“I’m afraid that when these ships go into drydock, we have no guarantee that they’re coming back,” Forbes said.
“I am confident that if we continue to deploy those cruisers ... we’re going to have fewer cruisers,” Stackley replied.
In a post-hearing interview, Forbes explained his concerns.
“If you’re convinced that they’re serious about putting these things in for a decade and then coming back and pulling them out, then you have to say their plan makes some sense,” Forbes said. “But I think Mr. Courtney had it right when he said, how do you take an entity that wanted to dismantle seven of them last year — and the only reason they didn’t was because Congress told them no — and then come back and say, uh oh, don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, let’s just quietly put them in the bed for 10 years and then we’re going to wake ‘em back up.”
Forbes said he was “adamant” in supporting the need for the ships in the air defense commander role to protect aircraft carrier strike groups. But he was frustrated that the Navy has moved slowly this year to present a detailed plan to upgrade and return the cruisers to service.
“The Navy has moved a long ways based upon the positions we’ve taken,” he said. “When they first came in with their plan [earlier this year] it didn’t look at all like this. They were basically just going to lay ‘em up.” The results, he said, came after prodding from the Hill.
“They’ve stepped up and tried to do that,” Forbes said.
“What we’re going to look for is to make sure there’s some guarantee to make sure there’s some teeth in their promise, so that we know these are coming out and they’re not just going to be mothballed and we’re never going to see them again.”
A guarantee, Forbes said, could come in the form of proposing to modernize two of the ships in 2015, rather than one, and returning both to service.
Forbes remains opposed to keeping the ships on the sidelines, whether before or after modernization.
“I don’t think that would be a wise scenario,” he said. “I think that given what you heard them say today, with the op tempo they have, with the deployment needs they have, if you had those ships modernized I think they would tell you it makes sense to have those ships out there.”
Forbes also is not buying the Navy’s position that the ships will wear out of they’re not taken out of service for some years.
“While you may be saving some hull life on these ships, you’re going to be wearing out hull life on the other ships, because you’re deploying them at too fast a rate,” he said.
Forbes also praised the Navy for indications it’s dropping plans to decommission the aircraft carrier George Washington and move ahead with work to prepare for a major refueling overhaul.
“The communication we’ve had from the Navy is this is a moving forward,” he said of a decision to free up money to begin planning to defuel the ship’s nuclear reactors. “And they see it as a moving forward, and we view it as a moving forward. And I don’t think the Navy is saying we’re playing games with you and we’re not going to do it. I think they’re taking those steps forward to doing it. We view this is a positive thing.”
Stackley, in the hearing, addressed the carrier issue.
“We are today making every effort to replan nearly $7 billion required across the future years to refuel the carrier, plus maintain its air wing, manpower and support,” Stackley said. “We’ve released the balance of advance procurement funding for 2014 to continue planning efforts in order to best maintain our options and retain skilled labor at the shipyard while we await determination by Congress regarding sequestration in 2016. Yet, this also increases the pressure on other programs.”
Forbes was pleased but not quite ready to break out the champagne.
“I’m not going to tell you they couldn’t pull the rug out from under us down the road,” Forbes said. “But I don’t think that any of our staff, or anybody we’ve talked to in the Navy, feels that way. I think this is a movement in a very positive direction.
“I think the Navy deserves credit for moving forward to where Congress is taking them. All the indications we’re getting are that these are steps in the direction we want them to go.”