Thursday, April 3, 2014

USS Washington - Not a Priority

A USNI news article (1) states that funding for the mid-life refueling and overhaul (RCOH) of the carrier USS George Washington has been removed from the Pentagon’s unfunded priorities list submitted to Congress.  Currently, the Washington’s RCOH is unfunded and a funding decision has been deferred.  The Navy had placed the RCOH on its draft list but it didn’t make it onto the final Pentagon list.

All signs point to the Washington being early retired unless the budget situation radically improves.  ComNavOps assesses the likelihood of the Washington being early retired as a virtual certainty.  We’re currently at 10 (9 active) carriers pending the commissioning of the Ford.  I see the Ford being “swapped” for the Washington to keep the carrier force at 10.  Of course, the carrier force is mandated by law at 11 ships so Congress would have to amend the law but that’s a trivial exercise.

How’s that 300 ship Navy looking?  We may be retiring Ticos and carriers but with 32 LCS’s coming we should still be in good shape.


  1. Maybe if an LCS flotilla calls up "Ramming Speed" they'll be of some use.

  2. Friends on the other side of the country in Norfolk have been telling me for some time they expect to see only six CVNs in operational status by the end of this decade, or perhaps a little later.

    The others won't be decommissioned, they will simply be tied to their piers without an assignment.

    These people don't have any special insight into the Navy's plans, they just see this happening as a predictable consequence of current trends in defense spending budget decisions, ever-rising manning costs, and ever-rising maintenance and operations costs.

    1. Scott, the Navy has already announced that two or more carriers would be idled along with their airwings. I believe that this has already happened. The Washington is a bit different in that it is going to be retired and scrapped. Presumably its airwing would also be deactivated.

      I've been predicting the carrier trend for quite some time. The trend is obvious, if unwise.

      While this is not the intent on paper, we really are replacing carriers and Ticos with LCS/JHSV/MLP. The Chinese, on the other hand, are replacing their dated patrol craft with ever more capable destroyers and carriers - just the opposite!

    2. I can believe Washington would be decommissioned, but she won't be scrapped anytime soon. Can the reactors be properly maintained in restorable condition after they have been defueled?

      In any case, the question naturally (and very painfully) arises, should we be constructing new CVNs -- however more combat capable they will be -- if older CVNs with many years of service life remaining in them are being decommissioned?

    3. Scott, you are quite right that a nuclear ship is not quickly scrapped. If I understand the thrust of your question (you're suggesting a reserve status of sorts), the issue is less about the maintenance of the reactors and more a question of preservation of the rest of the ship. Properly "mothballing" a ship for future use is an extensive and expensive process and the ship would require regular maintenance. It is these costs which have led the Navy to abolish the reserve fleet. A ship the size and complexity of a supercarrier would be expensive to maintain in reserve status. The Navy would much rather (and unwisely) use the funds for new construction. Hence, the Washington will not be maintained. The scrapping process will begin. Admittedly, a lengthy process although the Enterprise is being scrapped in a surprisingly rapid fashion - possibly to forestall any argument that new carriers are not needed when we could overhaul Enterprise for much less cost??

      As an aside, my vague understanding is that maintaining a "mothballed" reactor is not easy. Something to do with embrittlement? In any case, a caretaker reactor crew would still be required - an expense the Navy undoubtedly wouldn't want to pay.

      Your question about construction of new carriers is not painful at all. It's a logical question and the logical answer is we should absolutely stop building carriers. A construction hiatus of 10 years (the next two carriers) would be a good thing to my way of thinking. A portion of the saved construction funds could go to multiple upgrades on existing carriers which would serve to maintain the industrial base and still save significant money. It would also force the Navy to take better care of the assets they have instead of continually ingnoring maintenance and building new ships instead.

    4. I really don't think we should even consider stopping production of aircraft carriers! They are CENTRAL to our ability to project power around the world. They have shown this time and time again. There is no viable replacement for what they bring to the table, IMHO. And that's coming from an ardent USAF supporter. Cruise missile firing ships and subs are, at best, niche players.

      No, instead we need to embark on a massive carrier cost reduction exercise involving the following steps:

      1. Junk nuclear power for aircraft carriers. It adds massive up front and life cycle costs that we just can't bear anymore. Conventional carriers served us well in the past. You can put conventional carriers on reduced operating or reserve status far more economically than a CVN, and you don't have to eat the huge mid-life refueling cost.

      2. Build carriers of a size and capability that we can afford. Sure, larger carriers are more efficient than smaller ones. But building a small number of large carriers is less efficient than a larger number of smaller carriers, from an economies of scale standpoint. And a small force is more brittle than a larger one.

      By "small", I don't mean STOVL. STOVL is a waste of time and money. It's Rube Goldberg airpower.

      We used to build perfectly good, conventional carriers in the 50-80,000 ton range. We can scale back the whiz-bang gizmos on Ford (DBR), and still produce a strategically valuable ship.

      3. We need to invest in naval airpower. I sometimes feel the Navy treats its aircraft programs as just justifications for expensive carrier programs, rather than putting the aircraft first. Payloads not platforms! The aircraft IS the payload. And we're stuck with the Super Hornet and F-35C slugs? We need working NATFs and ATAs.

    5. I really don't think we should even consider continuing production of aircraft carriers! They're unsustainable costs are CENTRAL to our declining ability to project power around the world. They have shown this time and time again. - My apologies for the paraphrase -
      Carriers are immensely powerful and important to our country. Unfortuantely, they have become budgetary drains that are decimating the fleet size. The logic of the larger and more expensive Ford class during a time of steady decreases in airwing size and stagnant budgets is baffling, to say the least.

      Fact: Airwings are getting smaller
      Navy Response: Build bigger carriers


      With respect, the nuclear versus conventional argument is strictly dependent on what factors you want to consider. Any reasonable analysis I've seen suggests that the costs are an ultimate wash. To me, that says that the choice should be based on tactical advantage (and, again, the tactical advantage is dependent on what factors you want to consider).

      The old Midway housed full airwings of Hornets. There's no reason we couldn't go back to that size carrier.

      You're absolutely correct about naval aviation. I might differ with your solution but your assessment of the problem is on the money.

    6. I haven't seen any detailed, open source analysis that says the cost difference is a wash.

      We have some vague assurances from the nuclear carrier Navy that they are, but how much of that is protecting the status quo? The only detailed analysis I've seen was done by the GAO, and it pointed to conventional carriers being SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper.

      Here's my chart with the breakdown of the GAO numbers, and my inflation adjusted numbers next to it.

      Columns B and C are straight from the GAO. Columns D and E are my inflation-adjusted numbers.

      I'd like to see a similar table from the Navy that includes all of the costs of both ship types.

      There are lots of things decimating fleet size right now. Building one carrier every 5 years isn't really a huge part of the SCN budget. Assuming each carrier costs $12 billion and lasts for 50 years, it takes an annualized rate of around $2.4 billion per year to keep 10 in service, or only about 16% of a $15 billion/year SCN budget.

      For perspective, keeping just 40 SSNs in the fleet (at $2.8 billion each, assuming 30 year service life), costs a steady-state $3.7 billion/year.

      Carriers are expensive, but we really don't build that many, so the costs are spread out over many years.

    7. Why doesn't the navy just retire the USS Nimitz instead? That way, the shipyard still gets the work on GW and maintains their RCOH proficiency. Oh wait, I forgot, as they will soon realize with the Enterprise, retiring a nuclear powered carrier is more expensive than keeping it operating! We need to go back to building conventional carriers. Empirical research has shown that "fossil" fuel carriers are cheaper to build, operate, maintain, and dispose of.

  3. The Navy ought to just scrap the Gerald R. Ford instead. A dual band radar that can't do air traffic control (among other shortfalls). Arresting gear that breaks, gets redesigned, breaks again, and on and on. EMALS system that is highly unreliable with no significant improvement expected for decades. Weapons elevators installed that nobody knows will work or not. Yes, I'd much rather have a functioning carrier like the GW in our fleet, TYVM.