NORFOLK, Va. – USS Vicksburg (CG-69) is in the middle of a $200 million repair period meant to keep the guided-missile cruiser in the fleet well into the 2030s. Shrouded in scaffolding and white plastic at BAE Systems Ship Repair, shipyard workers have been upgrading Vicksburg since 2020.
The repair work was part of a controversial decade-old Navy modernization plan to keep 11 of the remaining 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers in the service’s inventory into the 2030s to operate with carrier strike groups and host their air defense commanders.
But now the Navy wants to abandon the modernization as part of a wide-ranging cut of legacy platforms the service says cost too much to fix and maintain. In the next five years, the Navy plans to shed its entire cruiser force, including the ships part of the ongoing modernization program, according to the long-range shipbuilding plan released this week.
Should Congress allow the Navy to move forward with its plan, the service would decommission 10 cruisers in two years, bringing the cruiser inventory down from 22 ships to 12 by the end of Fiscal Year 2023.
“It really comes down to – for these ships that are all over 30-years-old – whether we want to continue to pour resources into them from a modernization perspective when only one of the five has actually delivered,” Vice Adm. Scott Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities (OPNAV N9), told reporters on Wednesday.
“Congress may not be happy, they may push back. There is concern at the waterfront. Having been down and visited Vicksburg last week, and walked that ship and they got a lot of stuff done. And they have a long way to go. So it’s just a part of our ‘get real’ perspective in the Navy in terms of assessing where we are. And is the investment we continue to make on these ships going to give us a return from a warfighting capability perspective?”
Along with Vicksburg, the Navy wants to decommission USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), USS Mobile Bay (CG-53), USS San Jacinto (CG-56) and USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) in FY 2023 and is already cleared to decommission USS Monterey (CG-61), USS Hué City (CG-66), USS Anzio (CG-68), USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) and USS Port Royal (CG-73) this year.
All 22 remaining cruisers are set to leave the fleet by 2027.
The Navy’s proposal is expected to continue years of debate between the service and Congress, as lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the Navy’s push to get rid of the cruisers without a platform to replace them.
Shedding the cruisers has been a thorn in the side of the Navy – and lawmakers – for over a decade, with the service offering various proposals to mothball and later modernize the ships or to decommission them permanently. All of the service’s ideas have been repeatedly rejected by Congress.
The back-and-forth between the service and lawmakers is convoluted, changing in detail and reasoning from year to year, but consistent in the overall theme of the Navy pushing to reduce the cruiser force and Congress pushing to keep the ships until there’s a viable replacement.
“The cruisers right now and the modernization are running 175 to 200 percent above estimated costs, hundreds of days delay. These ships were intended to have a 30-year service life, we’re out to 35,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told the House Armed Services Committee last year.
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), the former executive officer of Anzio, has been a vocal critic of the Navy’s plan to decommission the cruisers in the face of China’s naval buildup. Luria and others have invoked the “Davidson window” – former U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil Davidson’s warning that China could move against Taiwan by the end of the decade.
“It’s a ship that we have, and the cost of modernizing and upgrading it for extending its service life 10 or so years is significantly lower than building a new ship,” she told USNI News last year.
“We need to look at what we have today and how we can use it and how we can use it most efficiently. The idea of divesting of current platforms that still have usable service life in order to invest in something that we might develop the technology for in the future – paired with our poor track record on [developing new] platforms – just makes absolutely no sense to me.”
The Navy’s current plan is to replace the cruisers with the upcoming Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The first Flight III, Jack Lucas (DDG-125), is set to commission next year. The destroyers will enter service at a rate far slower than the cruisers are leaving.
The service had planned to create a next-generation cruiser, CG(X), but the program was abandoned in 2010 due to cost.
In the mid-2010s, the service went ahead and took seven of the ships out of service, saying they would later be modernized to reenter the fleet as older cruisers reached the end of their service lives. The ships were not officially decommissioned, but instead entered a limbo state where crew numbers shrank to near-caretaker size. Stores, fuel and much of the ships’ equipment were removed, and at different stages the ships were “inducted” into a cruiser modernization program. Some shipyard work was done on the ships, but only in phases.
None of the ships inducted into the cruiser modernization program have returned to service. Two, Hue City and Anzio, are already slated for decommissioning this year and are in such poor condition the Navy determined they’re no longer worth repairing.
Earlier this month, Anzio could be seen at Naval Station Norfolk with no lifeboats, its painting turning pink and corrosion creeping up the hull from the waterline.
Conn said the new plan is “a realization that we have concern whether it will work. Gettysburg did deliver. I’m looking to see that ship get actually underway. Vicksburg has got a date. We’ll see if she can make that. … Nothing is carved in stone by the hand of God, it’s all on paper, it’s future decisions. There are people that can change it.”
Randy Forbes on a Decade of the Cruiser Debate
USNI News contributor Christopher P. Cavas interviewed former chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee Randy Forbes on the history of the Navy’s cruiser modernization program. The Virginia Republican was front and center in Congressional opposition to the Navy’s efforts to draw down the cruiser force. Now out of Congress and in private life, last week he reviewed some of the history of the issue for USNI News.
FORBES: Actually the cruiser fight started longer than a decade ago. There was this huge movement in the Navy that was undermining force structure. We began to see this erosion of morale throughout the entire Navy. Ultimately that came to fruition and people began to see it in very painful ways – you see a force structure that is deteriorating rapidly. I think the cruisers were perfect examples of this.
When the Navy first came over there was no mention that we’re going to get rid of cruisers, that we want to take our force structure down. That wasn’t even a blip on the screen. The Navy’s first foray into this was to say, “oh no, we think the cruisers are important. We think we have to keep them. We’re just trying to find a way to modernize them in the most efficient way we can.”
And the way they were going to do that is if you’ll help us lay some of these up, then we will be able to modernize them more economically, more quickly. And they will still be a viable force to get us through until we can get something to take over their place.
However, we knew that was not their real intention. We knew that while they were coming in and talking about creating a hospital for these cruisers, what they really wanted to do was create a hospice for these cruisers, and we knew that they would be gone and they would never come back.
We went to work trying to paint a picture for Congress as to why the Navy itself was important and why fleet structure was important. And to ask the Navy one question – do you need these capabilities? And if you don’t need the capabilities, how are you going to replace them? And the Navy never answered that question.
They next came in and had yet another argument of what they were going to do to help the cruisers – it was never to take them out, it was to help them. And we stopped them on that. Then they came in with this 2-4-6 plan to take them on a limited basis. [A Navy plan to lay up two cruisers per year for a long-term phase modernization period, no greater than four years and no greater than six in modernization at any given time.]
We had all these discussions with the Navy. We were saying, you know right now you guys are focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but you’re gonna blink your eyes and you’re gonna be looking at China and you’re gonna be looking at a rebuilt Russia. And you’re gonna need this force capability.
That continued to the point where today they have really bootstrapped this, by their own efforts, by their own work. They have now created the basis for getting rid of the cruisers, which they wanted to do a decade or more ago and just didn’t have the transparency to say that the only reason they were doing it was cost, that we need to cut the Navy. But we knew they were at the center point of what we were going to have to be able to do to keep our carrier groups competitive in the world that they were going to be facing.
These cruisers became symbolic of a lot more than just cruisers. Tell us how you’re gonna replace these capabilities? The Navy has never been able to adequately do that. And now they’ve even got this new red herring of, “we’re doing it for the safety of the men and women.” Well, I mean, what kind of argument is that, to put men and women on a ship that’s not safe?
[What the Navy has] generated with the cruisers has been a self-fulfilling prophecy they have brought on themselves, by the process that they put together in trying to do or not do the maintenance that was needed on those vessels.
USNI News: So what happens now?
FORBES: The Navy has, by its own efforts, probably put the cruisers in a position where it’s going to be next to impossible to salvage them. If I were king, though, I would use this as an opportunity to do something I’ve been advocating for over 15 years – bring in the Navy leadership to make a presentation to Congress of the risk they think the United States Navy is going to face in the next 10 to 20 years. Then to say and definitively show the capabilities they need to defend against that risk.
Then I would get them to show what the risks are to the United States and to the men and women of the United States Navy if they don’t provide those capabilities. I would make that decision first and then apply the money and the budget to say, ‘okay, if we make this cut or that cut, this is what that risk factor is going to be and this is what our exposure is going to be.’
The Navy has never, at least in my career in [Congress] and the positions that I held, never been held accountable to do that. If we don’t correct how we got here, we’re going to be here in another instance, in something else, on another platform at some other time, five years from now, or 10 years from now.
And I would say, ‘tell me what the hell you’re going to do to cover this capability right now? Why hasn’t that been fixed? Because you’ve had 10 years to run with this and you still haven’t done it.’
If you don’t have that kind of accountability, all of a sudden the Navy wakes up tomorrow and they’re in a fight and they don’t have those capabilities. And everybody’s pointing the finger at everybody else. But I think if you use this as kind of a defining mechanism of how we change, how we move forward in the future, I think that’s incredibly important.
I would use this whole debate on the cruisers, not to let it just go by the wayside and say, ‘okay, the Navy got what they wanted, they finally destroyed the cruisers.’ But I would use it as a great methodology of how we really bring strategic planning into play for the United States Navy and stop letting the budget drive what we’re going to do in terms of national defense. Really have a debate of what we need for national defense, and then at least understand our risk when we do a budget application on top of that.