House lawmakers to review Navy ship retirements

House lawmakers Thursday pressed Navy brass over the service’s plan to yank several warships out of the fleet early, a decision that could have serious consequences for the Navy’s new shipbuilding strategy.

“There is a lot of concern about that,” Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) told service leaders during a Wednesday hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

Full committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) “will be closely examining” the Navy’s ship-retirement plan, said spokesman John Noonan.

Specifically, McKeon will be looking at whether those retirements are “the right move, given today’s uncertain strategic climate,” he said.

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The Navy’s new shipbuilding plan hinges on whether the service can keep afloat the ships it currently has — “particularly large surface combatants” — such as cruisers and destroyers, in the fleet.

The Navy would “prefer not to retire any ships early,” as evidenced by the new shipbuilding plan, explained Vice Adm. Terry Blake, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources.

But Blake said it would cost the Navy roughly $4.1 billion to upgrade those ships and keep them in the fleet.

Given the financial crunch the Navy and the rest of the Defense Department is under, that is not fiscally feasible, he said.

The Navy plan caps the fleet’s size at 300 ships. Service leaders plan to spend an average of $15.1 billion per year over the five-year plan to build up to the 300-ship force.

Outside of the five-year plan, spending will jump to $19.5 billion per year to pay for recapitalization of the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, according to the plan.

Navy cost estimates for the service’s long-term, 30-year shipbuilding plan average out to $16.8 billion, according to the plan.

But the Navy has already scheduled seven cruisers to come off the line before they are due. Four are set to come out in fiscal 2013, and the remaining three in fiscal 2014.

Pushing back against Blake’s argument, Davis claimed the early retirements would cut short the return on the investment made by Congress in those ships, and that pulling those vessels from the fleet early would be a waste of time and taxpayer dollars spent to build those warships.

Cruisers also “pack a hard punch” that U.S. naval forces will need as DOD shifts its focus from the Middle East to Asia, Noonan added.

“What else can you do, if people are uncomfortable with that decision” to cut the seven cruisers, Davis asked Blake.

If the Navy was forced by Congress to bring those ships back into the fleet, service leaders would have to find something “equally egregious” to cut within the Navy budget.

There is just “little to no wiggle room at this point,” Blake said. 

— This story was updated at 3:07 p.m. to add comments from a House Armed Services Committee spokesman.

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