Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Washington Refueling and Overhaul

As you know, carriers undergo a mid-life nuclear refueling and comprehensive overhaul (RCOH) and the USS Washington is the next up in line.  She was scheduled to begin the refueling in 2016 but budget questions have delayed the work until at least 2017.  In fact, the Navy had floated the possibility of an early retirement for the carrier and had publicly stated that they would wait until the 2016 budget to make any decision, thereby ensuring further schedule delays.  Predictably, this caused a bit of an outcry in Congress which responded by including $850M in the 2015 budget for Washington’s refueling.

The $850M was widely reported as ensuring that the Washington would be refueled, overhauled, and retained, thereby maintaining the 11 carrier force level.  Unfortunately, that’s not even remotely correct.  The RCOH is estimated to require 44 months and will cost around $4.7B.  The $850M is little more than enough to get the ship into drydock.  At best, it might cover the removal of the spent fuel which has to be done whether the ship is refueled or retired. 

Thus, the ship’s RCOH is hardly assured, yet.  Add in the fact that a second round of sequestration is scheduled to hit in Oct 2015 with the attendant likelihood of additional budget cuts and the future of the Washington is anything but assured.  The Navy was willing to retire the Washington before and future budget cuts will probably ensure that retirement.

There’s another factor at play, here, that we’ve touched on briefly and that is the fact that the Navy only has 9 active air wings.  A carrier without an air wing is useless.  If Washington is retained, we’ll have 11 carriers (one is always in long term overhaul so that equates to 10 active carriers) and 9 air wings.  So, only 9 carriers could actually operate.  Does anyone think the Navy will pay for the operation and upkeep of an idled carrier that has no air wing?  Some carrier is going to be early retired.

I believe the Navy deactivated the tenth air wing in anticipation of Washington’s retirement and have found a bit more resistance from Congress than they anticipated.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Navy could form a new air wing but the procurement cost of the aircraft alone would be on the order of $6B and that’s without considering the personnel costs and all the other associated costs.  Does anyone think the Navy is going to come up with $6B for a new air wing?  Not likely!  Add to that the near certainty that the Navy’s F-35 buy will be significantly reduced and we see that air wings are going to continue to shrink, not form new air wings. 

A carrier is going to be retired early. 

Alternatively, though less likely, the Washington might be refueled and returned to service and the next carrier in line, the Stennis, I believe, might be the candidate for retirement.

ComNavOps has been saying for some time that the carrier fleet is on its way down to 8-9.  This is the next logical step and the budget issues make it almost inevitable.  Note that I do not agree with this trend – I merely observe it happening.

On a somewhat related note, we’ve seen that the Navy has attempted to early retire a carrier, half the Aegis cruiser force, several big deck amphibs, and various auxiliary support ships, all while aggressively pushing for 52 toothless LCS’s.  Honestly, if the Chinese had slipped an agent into the CNO’s position and instructed him to disrupt and dismantle the Navy, he couldn’t do a better job than we are doing to ourselves.  But, that’s another topic …


  1. The premise of your post is based on a misunderstanding of Navy organizational structures.

    The Navy disestablished an Airwing STAFF, not the squadrons and aircraft attached. An airwing staff is approximately 25-30 personnel led by a CAPT know as CAG. There are operations, maintenance, administration, intel, and safety departments, and a chaplain. Squadrons are attached to the staff for the readiness cycle and deployment, but may move to other staffs post-deployment as need dictates.

    Given there would be only 9 carriers for 2-3 years after Enterprise was retired, and given there are several TACAIR squadrons undergoing transitions each year – upgrading from legacy to new aircraft: F-18C to E/F; EA-6B to EA-18G; E-2C to D – the sensible question is why should the Navy maintain an airwing staff who’s carrier is precomm or RCOH, and who’s squadrons are in transition?

    Trons Away

    1. VR, I'm willing to believe that if you can give me some documentation to that effect. The Sep 2014 Proceedings lists CVW-14 as disestablished. There is no mention of squadrons being reassigned. If you're correct, where have the squadrons gone and what are they doing?

      Also, CVW-14 was scheduled to be disestablished in Nov 2011 but was overuled by Congress and the Navy was ordered to maintain, fund, and operate the wing. If the disestablishment was a simply administrative shuffling, why was Congress involved?

      As I say, I'm prepared to believe you if you can supply some documentation. Thanks.

      Just a note: the premise of the post is that Washington's RCOH is not yet fully funded and that I believe she will be early retired due to budget concerns, primarily. The air wing number is a supporting point but, even if you're correct, doesn't change my thought on this.

    2. Another related issue here is the near-certain prospect of further delays and further cost overruns in the delivery of the USS Gerald Ford. I've read the GAO's report from November, 2014, and it is clear that the day-to-day busy work of getting the multitude of detailed construction work packages done on time is falling further and further behind schedule.

      There may not be any real showstoppers here concerning the Ford's new technology -- just the normal problems one experiences with deploying these new technologies for the very first time.

      But it is clear that the amount of shipyard detail work and the number of man-hours needed to build this first ship of its class has not been accurately estimated. Where is the additional money needed to finish out the ship going to come from?

  2. CNO, sure, I can try, but I fear that most of the publicly available information is circumstantial, at best. If we extend from the idea that the Navy has reduced the number of airwing staffs from 10 to 9 in the anticipation of reducing the carrier force from 11 to 10 as a cost cutting measure, there are some legislative and logical miscues which fail to reach true efficiencies.

    As I have stated previously, an airwing staff is only 20-30 personnel, that cost savings is relatively minor, but spreading those billets across the rest of the fleet reduces manpower deficits, while maintaining overall service end-strength. So, in reality that action is cost neutral, but service beneficial.

    Despite the reduction in airwing staffs, there have been no like reductions in the number of TACAIR squadrons. The Navy maintains 35 VFA squadrons, and continues to integrate 3 VMFA (USMC FA-18 A+/C) ) squadrons into its airwings. Per the FY15 Presidential Budget, and the FY15 Selected Acquisition Reports (SAR) for both the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and the EA-18G Growler, the Navy is funding sufficient assets for ten CVW squadrons.

    The Navy could save by disestablishing at least one VAW and one VAQ squadron (200+ personnel each) and reducing the buy of expensive Advanced Hawkeyes and Growlers, but they are not. Per USNI news and the EA-18 SAR, the Navy is actually expanding the number of VAQ squadrons to 15, and expanding the number of aircraft per squadron from 5 to 7; there are still 10 VAW squadrons.

    Per the F-35 SAR, NAVAIR is purchasing 80 F-35C for the USMC to replace the 3 VMFA carrier squadrons, bringing the total CVW strike fighter squadron inventory to 40. As the USMC has mixed feelings about TACAIR integration, one could logically expect the USMC to petition funding for that number of Cs be reallocated to Bs, thus reducing the VSTOL variant unit cost, and eliminating maintenance of two different types of aircraft and the need to send any USMC squadrons to sea with CVWs. The Marines have not.

    As to where the squadrons go, if you review the official histories of the various squadrons and CVWs, you will see squadrons moving between different airwings in recent years. This squadron swapping is to accommodate for 6-12 month long aircraft model transitions (18C to E/F, 6B to 18G, E-2D to E-2C, helos…). The squadrons exist administratively, but go back to the community training squadron to learn the new aircraft, then join a different airwing one year later. TA






    1. A quick check of Internet sources shows the Navy currently lists 35 active VFA squadrons (not counting the fleet replacement squadrons) distributed among 9 air wings. That's 4 squadrons per wing, as expected with one wing having only 3.

      If you believe there is a shadowy 10th air wing you'll have to show me where they are and what they're doing. All the evidence points to a wing being permanently deactivated. If the wing had just been administratively deactivated, the squadrons would either have been distributed across the remaining wings and would show as several wings having 5 squadrons (none do) or the squadrons would have been parked somewhere and are sitting idle (possible).

      My understanding is that CVW-14's squadrons were distributed and that other squadrons were deactivated. I'd have to do a detailed comparison study of all the wing's pre- and post- deactivation assignments to figure out the exact movements and deactivations and that's more work than I care to do.

    2. I still think the solution to this and a lot of the procurement issues is a return to Zumwalt's high/low mix. We could build a version of the RN QEII class with catapults and nuke power for probably half what a Ford costs. A lot of the design work has already been done by the French. They rejected it because of cost, but if we could commit to a production run of several, we could probably amortize enough costs to make it work for both them and us. Based on historical employment, that ship would probably be plenty big to accommodate air wings the size that ours are shrinking to. Have 6 big carriers and 6 of those, and we'd have a very formidable carrier capability. Even the little carrier would pack enough punch to blow away any other carrier in the world and a lot of third world air forces.