This post has been updated to include a statement from Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.).
The Pentagon is again considering a reduction in aircraft carrier force structure as part of the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget submission to Congress, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
In order to meet a proposed $704 billion to $708 billion topline for the first Biden Defense Department budget – the Trump administration’s FY 2022 budget proposed $722 billion – the Office of the Secretary of Defense is weighing how it could build in savings by reducing the carrier force, the two sources familiar with the ongoing internal discussion told USNI News on Wednesday.
While the Pentagon has not acknowledged the $704 billion to $708 billion budget topline, Politico and Bloomberg reported OSD was operating under the assumption it would have to design a budget within those totals.
The search for cost savings could include revisiting a 2019 Trump administration proposal to take aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) out of the inventory rather than conduct a mid-life refit and refueling, a legislative source told USNI News.
A separate source familiar with the carrier review said that, additionally, the entire scope of the shipbuilding budget was under scrutiny.
The idea of retiring an active carrier has circulated on Capitol Hill to the point where House Armed Services seapower and projection forces ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) asked a senior admiral on Wednesday if retiring an aircraft carrier ahead of the overhaul was a good idea.
“In your best professional military judgment, do you believe – considering the current stress on the aircraft carrier force – that taking out an aircraft carrier from service just before its mid-life refueling would be a smart thing to do?” Wittman asked U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander Adm. Phil Davidson on Wednesday.
Davidson responded, “there is no capability that we have that can substitute for an aircraft carrier in my view. You can see by the strain of the deployments over the course of the last year that they are in high demand by all the combatant commanders, and sustaining that capability going forward in my view is critically important. I’m in support of the law which calls for the number of carriers in the United States.”
When asked about the exchange between Wittman and Davidson and if cutting carriers was a consideration, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told USNI News on Wednesday that DoD would not comment on the budget ahead of its rollout. USNI News understands the Biden budget will be ready by early May.
In a Wednesday statement to USNI News, a Wittman spokesman said the question was hypothetical and based on previous moves by the Pentagon to cut the carrier force.
“These hypothetical concerns are prompted by the prior administration putting a range on aircraft carriers under which we could only reduce assets. Should we face a declining defense budget, that range will require the new administration to make some difficult decisions on force structure, and Congressman Wittman wants to ensure those decisions are made as wisely as possible should the need arise,” reads the statement.
Late last month, USNI News reviewed a memo that directed the Pentagon’s Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to evaluate the Navy’s shipbuilding budget as part of a holistic review of the Trump administration proposal.
“Due to the limited amount of time available before the Department must submit its FY 2022 President’s Budget Request, the process to re-evaluate existing decisions will focus on a very small number of issues with direct impact on FY 2022 and of critical importance to the President and the Secretary,” the memo reads.
Navy shipbuilding was at the top of the list for review.
The 2019 proposal to decommission Truman rather than refuel the carrier after 25 years of service was paired with a two-carrier deal to buy the third and fourth Ford-class carriers, Enterprise (CVN-80) and Doris Miller (CVN-81). At the time, the Navy said it could save $1.5 billion from 2020 and 2023 in planning costs alone for the Truman refueling and complex overhaul.
Congress blessed the two-carrier buy for an estimated savings of $4 billion but stopped the Truman decommissioning and inserted specific language in the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to prevent the move.
It’s unclear how much money the Pentagon would save if it got rid of Truman instead of refueling the carrier. The cost of the refueling and complex overhaul is about $5.5 billion. But according to a report in Defense Daily from 2014, the cost to decommission a Nimitz-class carrier at the time was about $2.5 billion.
The Navy and shipyard Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding are still in the early stages in learning the best way to decommission and scrap a nuclear carrier. The hull of the first atomic carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), has been at the pier at Newport News since 2013. While inactivation was completed in 2018, the service is still working through how it will scrap the hull.
While it’s not clear how much the Navy would have to spend to decommission a carrier, the Navy would recoup savings if it would maintain fewer carrier air wings.
In 2019, those proposals fell by the wayside when the Trump administration reversed course on the Truman decision announced during a visit by former Vice President Mike Pence to the carrier.
“We are keeping the best carrier in the world in the fight. We are not retiring the Truman,” Pence said in 2019. “The USS Harry S. Truman is going to be giving ‘em hell for many more years to come.”
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a former Navy nuclear-qualified surface warfare officer whose district includes portions of Norfolk, Va., said U.S. defense spending needs to increase and that the Pentagon should not reduce the carrier force in a statement issued after an earlier version of this post.
“As we look to expand the U.S. Navy’s presence in response to malign Chinese activity and illegal maritime claims, the last thing we should consider is cuts to our carrier fleet,” Luria said.
“Now is not the time to cut defense spending. Our defense budget should grow at 3 to 5 percent above inflation to counter an increasingly threatening China,” she continued. “One cannot place a value on the unparalleled power projection and deterrence provided by our fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings. I urge the Biden administration to immediately drop this from consideration.”