HASC Bill Would Speed Up Cruiser Modernization Plan, But Not All Members Agree

April 23, 2015 4:18 PM
USS Antietam (CG-54) is underway off the coast of Japan near Mt. Fuji. US Navy Photo
USS Antietam (CG-54) is underway off the coast of Japan near Mt. Fuji. US Navy Photo

The Navy’s cruiser modernization effort will once again be a hot topic of debate, as some House Armed Services Committee (HASC) members push for a tighter timeline for the maintenance and combat system upgrades.

The Navy’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2016 complies with last year’s congressional compromise – rather than set aside 11 of the 22 cruisers and upgrade them just in time to replace the remaining 11 cruisers as they retire next decade, the Navy would begin modernizing them now. Two ships a year would go into maintenance, for a shipyard availability of no more than four years, with no more than six ships in maintenance at any given time –the so-called 2/4/6 plan.

But even as the Navy is still advocating its previous plan, some HASC members are pushing in the opposite direction, demanding that the Navy complete the modernization work in two years instead of four.

According to the seapower and projection forces subcommittee’s section of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the Navy would have two years to get the ships in and out of the yard, and an extra six months if the Navy secretary files for an extension.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) told USNI News today that he asked the Navy how long the cruiser modernization shipyard availability should take, and officials told him 18 months. Forbes argues the 2/2/6 plan still allows an additional year to complete the work if problems arise.

Subcommittee staff, however, told reporters Wednesday that, even though the work can be done in two years instead of four, it comes at a higher cost.

The four-year plan would allow the Navy to do the hull, mechanical and electrical work and the combat system upgrades piecemeal, fitting the work into valleys in the shipyards’ overall workload. Under the two-year plan, the HM&E and combat system work would have to happen concurrently, and it would have to happen on a strict timeline regardless of what else the shipyards had planned.

The four-year plan would have allowed the Navy to dip to a minimal crew size – 46, the staffers said – in the middle of the work period, lowering personnel costs for a time. Under a two-year plan, there is not enough downtime to reduce the crew size, so the Navy would lose out on those expected costs savings.

And, of course, under the two-year plan the Navy would have to purchase combat systems and other materials sooner, creating more of a budget crunch in the short-term. The Ship Modernization, Operation and Sustainment Fund (SMOSF) – a bank account of sorts created in FY 2013 to prevent the Navy from retiring seven cruisers rather than modernizing them – currently has about $2 billion set aside for the work and would run out in mid-FY 2019 under the 2/4/6 plan. The subcommittee staffers said SMOSF would expire a year earlier under the 2/2/6 plan.

The staffers would not characterize the maintenance itself as more expensive under 2/2/6, since the material and the manhours to complete the work would be the same. But they said the two-year plan results in “savings the Navy is unable to realize” that they would have under a four-year modernization schedule – and therefore the two-year plan spends SMOSF faster, reduces the potential to save money and expends the ships’ service life faster by putting them back out into the fleet the fastest of all the plans being discussed.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) told reporters after the subcommittee markup today that the 2/2/6 plan’s inclusion in the subcommittee language does not mean all subcommittee members agree with it. Typically, the subcommittee members and their staffs spend so much time on the language that what is voted on to the full committee has virtually unanimous support – any further disagreements are settled in the full committee markup or during House floor debate. In this case, Courtney said, HASC is running about two weeks ahead of schedule and there was not enough time for members to settle on a cruiser modernization plan they could all agree on.

“I have concerns, so I think we’ll give you some suspense,” he said, declining to elaborate on his concerns but saying there would be a fuller debate on the topic during the April 29 full committee markup.

Forbes, on the other hand, discounted the cost and service life issues. On cost, he said a more important question to ask is, “what’s the cost to the country if we need cruisers out there and we don’t have those cruisers?” On the issue of service life – one of the key arguments the Navy has made for keeping to its plan to postpone modernization on the 11 cruisers until the older ones retire – Forbes said, “make no bones about it, the Navy has never joked that this was about the service life of these vessels; its’ always been about budgets and cutting them.”

He added that if the Navy had serious concerns about expending service life too soon, “we don’t mind buying additional time” and slowing down the maintenance work if the Navy can prove it will follow through with its requirement to modernize the cruisers and return them to the fleet.

Forbes still has questions for the Navy on the issue, since the Navy’s original intention was to “euthanize them, not modernize them,” he said. Regarding the previous plan for eventual phased modernization, “if they want to come back and show us where they’d put money in to make sure [the modernization is] going to actually be done and give us some certainty,” he would be willing to consider a slower work plan. But absent some guarantees, Forbes wants the ships into maintenance and back into the fleet as quickly as possible.

Also in the defense bill, the subcommittee restores funding for destroyer modernization that had been cut due to tight budgets. The Navy decided earlier this year to cancel ballistic missile defense upgrades for five destroyers over five years. The subcommittee staffers said that decision creates a “capability deficit” their bill addresses, but they could not comment yet on the exact number of destroyer modernizations it would restore, pending full committee decisions.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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