The midlife refueling overhaul for the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) is scheduled for 2024, but once again, the Department of Defense (DoD) wants to eliminate an aircraft carrier because it believes the refueling overhaul funds can be better used elsewhere. President Barack Obama’s administration tried to cancel the refueling midlife overhauls of the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and George Washington (CVN-73), only to see Congress insist on both.
In this case, DoD wants to reprogram about $3.5 billion between now and the end of 2028. The Harry S. Truman is scheduled to enter the shipyard in 2024 for a three-year, midlife overhaul that would include new nuclear fuel (to keep her in service to at least 2048). Note that the refueling costs comprise only about 10 percent of the total because the nuclear fuel is already made and paid for with other funds.
The Navy explains its decision by saying:
As part of this budget request, we made this difficult decision to retire CVN-75 in lieu of its previously funded complex overhaul (RCOH) that was scheduled in [fiscal year (FY)] 2024. This adjustment is in concert with the Defense Department’s commitment to proactively pursue diversified investments in next generation, advanced, and distributed capabilities, including unmanned and optionally manned systems, and to provide a strong industry demand signal for the same. This approach pursues a balance of high-end, survivable manned platforms with a greater number of [complementary], more affordable, potentially more cost-imposing and attritable options.
Canceling the refueling without Congressional action would violate the law, however. U.S. Code Title 10, Section 8062 states:
The naval combat forces of the Navy shall include not less than 11 operational carriers. . . . An operational carrier includes an aircraft carrier that is temporarily unavailable for worldwide deployment due to routine or scheduled maintenance or repair.
It seems probable DoD told the Navy to say that the service decided to retire the ship—but why would the Navy choose to retire a carrier in violation of the law? The Navy knows the first thing to do should have been to ask Congress—constitutionally charged “to provide and maintain a Navy”—for a waiver before making such a decision.
Is the provided explanation sufficient? Is not “a balance of high-end, survivable manned platforms with a greater number of [complementary], more affordable, potentially more cost-imposing and attritable options” mere hyperbole imposed on the Navy by DoD? If these “attritable options” are “potentially more cost-imposing,” are they more affordable? It is hard to find a better example of bureaucratic doublespeak.
Until 2000, 15 carriers were the Joint Chiefs’ requirement. But as more carriers were retired, Congress amended Title 10 in 2007 to put the minimum into law. The law requires 11 because, since the end of World War II, at least three have been deployed almost continuously around the world. In a conflict, the Navy can surge three more from either the three preparing to deploy and/or from the three just recently returned. So, for six in a conflict, you need nine deployable carriers. The tenth can be in a scheduled one-year drydocking, and the eleventh in a scheduled midlife overhaul.
But if CVN-75 is retired prematurely, the Navy may not be able to reprogram as much as it thinks. To decommission her (designed and built to last 50 years), the Navy must remove the spent fuel, strip out the nuclear plant, safely dispose of both, and then scrap the hull. That will cost about $3B, so only a little more than half of the $6.5 billion total price tag for the overhaul could be reprogrammed.
And the planned dual-buy of two Gerald R. Ford-class carriers will not let the Navy meet the 11-ship requirement. Without the Harry S, Truman in overhaul, in 2024 the number of legally “operational” carriers drops to ten. The planned John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) is scheduled to replace the retiring USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in 2025—ten operational carriers. In 2026, the Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is scheduled for overhaul—still only ten. In 2028, the next Enterprise (CVN-80)—first of the dual-buy—should replace the Nimitz-class USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69); in 2032, the second dual-buy ship, the yet-unnamed CVN-81, replaces USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70); and in the same year the final Nimitz-class USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) is planned for overhaul. At no point in the next 13 years does the Navy get above ten operational carriers—and that only if all midlife refueling overhauls of the remaining Nimitz-class carriers actually are completed.
To comply with the law if the Harry S. Truman is retired, the Navy needs to get ahead of the retirements. This would require acceleration of the construction of two carriers by between four and six years to add just one more operational ship and maintain the replacement schedule going forward. Could the scheduled 2032 completion of CVN-81 be accelerated to replace CVN-69 by 2028? Maybe.
But the Navy also would have to accelerate the Enterprise as well, to free up the sole assembly dock early enough to give the shipyard time to build CVN-81 by 2028. That is not part of the dual-buy plan, and there is not enough time or money to do that now. The most likely carrier constructions to accelerate begin with CVN-82. A 2005 Rand Corporation study assessed that it takes at least 12 years to restore the force by one through new construction.
Canceling the overhaul also will add costs to projects already underway at Newport News Shipbuilding where the overhaul would have been performed, because those programs must pick up a greater share of the yard’s overhead costs.
So, what would the United States get for the refueling overhaul if the law is obeyed? It gets at least eleven more deployments between 2027 and 2048, with as many as 80 of the Navy’s latest generation of aircraft. Today that includes the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the fifth-generation F-35C Lightning II, the new electronic warfare EA-18G Growler, and submarine/terrorist-boat hunting helicopters—all commanded and controlled by new E-2D Hawkeyes.
These aircraft in the Navy’s hands are better than the vague— “more affordable, potentially cost-imposing attritable options”—in the bush. The revolution in developing large, deep-strike, unmanned combat aircraft will need all the Nimitz-class carriers they can land on. (For more on this, see former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s paper published by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analyses.)
The world is not getting any safer. However much we wish it otherwise, the United States will need its aircraft carriers, in sufficient numbers. Congress must make certain the Navy overhauls the Harry S. Truman.