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Navy defends push to decommission dozens of ships

Updated: May 20, 2022

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told Congress this week that the Navy has no choice but to decommission 24 ships because they are too costly to repair, maintain and equip with modern weapons systems that stand a chance against China’s growing naval fleet.

At a May 11 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Gilday was asked several times why the Navy recommends the retirement of so many vessels, particularly when the Navy was proposing to build just nine new ships in the next year. In response, Gilday said the deciding factor was whether ships could be repaired and modernized to the point where the Navy could “count on them to actually move the needle in a high-end fight with an adversary like China.”

“Of the five cruisers that we’ve had in modernization, they are over eight years in delay days out of shipyards and over a half a billion dollars above budget with respect to the modernization programs,” Gilday said as one example. “With respect to the weapons systems on those platforms, they older radars can’t see the threat. So if they can’t see it, they can’t shoot it down.”

“In terms of reliability, three recent cruisers that we’ve deployed, we’ve either had to pull them in for repairs overseas with leaks below the waterline, we’ve had to pull them back into their home ports in the United States for leaking fuel tanks,” he added. “So there have been survivability, reliability and lethality challenges with the cruisers that are near the end of their service life of 35 years.”

“We think at this point that we’re throwing good money after bad,” Gilday concluded.

He said the decision to retire nine Littoral Combat Ships was based on the conclusion that the main battery of those ships “did not work out technically.”

“So after about a year and a half study, I refused to put an additional dollar against a system that would not be able to track a high-end submarine in today’s environment,” he said.

The Navy hopes to use funding to focus on readiness, modernization and capacity, “in that order.” One example of readiness he provided is maximizing the domestic production of missiles so the ships America sends to sea can “actually matter” in a fight.

Gilday’s comments came after weeks of complaints from members of both parties that the Navy’s latest budget plan calls for a shrinking Navy fleet over the next year, and then three production options over the next several years, only one of which calls for sustained growth in the fleet.

Decommissioning ships is just one side of the equation that determines fleet size, while production is the other half. Gilday used the hearing to outline the production challenges the U.S. is facing.

One of those challenges is the lack of an industrial base to support more shipbuilding. He said the U.S. has already maximized the submarine industrial base by producing three nuclear-powered attack submarines per year.

“Two destroyers a year is what the industrial base can support right now,” he added.

Another factor is inflation, which is making everything more expensive, including fuel. Gilday said the Navy may need another $2 billion per year “for fuel alone.”

“Inflation adds another stressor,” he said.

Despite these explanations, Gilday still drew some criticism from lawmakers about why the Navy isn’t asking for more resources to get the job done. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) criticized the Navy for pushing to scuttle ships too early in the hopes that future technology arrives in time to build a new fleet that can stand up to China.

“I think if future platforms and capabilities that you project to arrive don’t arrive in the next five years to the fleet, I think that creates incredible vulnerabilities for the United States and opportunities for China,” Wittman said. “I think this is a dangerous place for us to be.”

Gilday said in response said he would recommend Congress pursue the more aggressive shipbuilding option laid out in the Navy’s plan, one that would create a fleet of 363 manned ships by 2045. But even if Congress pursues that, those plans could not be supported by the current industrial base.

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