WASHINGTON — The US Navy and Congress are in a sort of faceoff over the fleet’s cruiser force. To extend their service lives, the Navy is asking to take half its cruisers — CGs in Navy-speak — out of service now and gradually bring them back starting in 2019. Congress, fearful that Pentagon budget-cutters will instead decide to cut costs and reduce the force, is insisting the ships be modernized now and kept running.
A level of discomfort — if not outright distrust — has been created as the service changed its original 2012 request to decommission seven cruisers under a spending reduction strategy to one where the Navy wants to keep them, but temporarily inactivate 11 its 22 Ticonderoga-class CGs under a modernization plan. Many on the Hill suspect that behind the rhetoric, there lurks a desire to save money by killing the ships.
Meanwhile, production of new DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers continues. To some, the DDGs, equipped with more up-to-date versions of the same Aegis combat system that equips the cruisers, seem up to the task of replacing the older CGs. But the Navy insists it needs its cruiser force, and the issue brings up some fundamental questions: What is a cruiser, what’s the difference between a cruiser and a destroyer, and what ship will protect the fleet’s aircraft carriers in the 2030s?
The Navy sometimes seems hellbent on discarding servicable surface warfare ships, as older ships eat a disproportionate share of the maintenance budget. But the problem is, designing and buying new ships costs far, far more than refurbishing older ships with significant life left.
Tight budgets, and especially the squeeze on total personnel numbers, makes manning the fleet we have hard. Having said that, there’s a stunning number of shoreside billets in the Navy. But the shrinking number of hulls, coupled with an ever expanding number of missions, means the relatively few ships left spend ever more time deployed. Which tends to drive out the people assigned to those ships. And also tends to wear out the hulls we do have faster than anticipated, and greatly increases the costs of upkeep.
There soon comes a tipping point where the Navy simply has to say “we don’t have enough ships to do every job.”
Mind you, this isn’t the Obama administration kneecapping the Navy. The Bush administration pretty much left the Navy to decide what it wanted to do in terms of shipbuilding. And that disaster haunts the Navy to this day.