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Congress fights Navy plan to decommission ships

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Congressional lawmakers this week started chipping away at the Navy’s unpopular plan to shrink the fleet by decommissioning ships.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee released legislation on Tuesday that would block the Navy from decommissioning the USS Vicksburg, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.

That same legislation would prevent the Navy from retiring four amphibious ships that are critical for Marine operations: the USS Germantown, USS Gunston Hall, USS Tortuga and USS Ashland. The push to save these ships comes just weeks after a senior Marine official warned that retiring too many amphibious ships will prevent the Marine Corps from carrying out its various missions across the globe.

In recognition of that warning, the bill would require the Secretary of the Navy to consult with the Commandant of the Marine Corps on “all major decisions directly concerning amphibious force structure or capability.” Additionally, it requires a minimum of 31 amphibious vessels – the Marines warned against the Navy’s plan of reducing that fleet to 24 and said 31 is the minimum requirement.

Language preventing the Navy from decommissioning these five ships was included in a bill that will become part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2023. On Wednesday, the subcommittee on seapower and projection forces quickly approved the bill and voted to pass it up to the full committee.

The new legislation doesn’t fully reverse the Navy’s plan for a smaller fleet. The Biden administration budget proposal released in April calls for building nine new ships and decommissioning 24, which would cut the fleet by 15 ships if that recommendation were followed.

The new House bill spares just five ships from decommissioning, which would still mean a net loss of 10 vessels. However, the NDAA doesn’t have to be the final say. Last year, Congress ignored the Navy’s recommendation for a net loss of nine ships and in the end passed a bill that expanded the fleet by one ship.

This year, Congress might still push back on the Navy's plan to decommission nine Freedom-variant littoral combat ships, four additional Ticonderoga-class cruisers, two attack submarines, two oilers and two Montford Point-class expeditionary transfer docks.

For example, about a week after the bill dealing with amphibious ships was approved in subcommittee, another subcommittee on the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would prevent the Navy from decommissioning five LCS ships.

The bill dealing with amphibious ships takes additional steps to avoid a shrinking fleet. For example, the legislation:

  • Calls for the continued production of San Antonio-class amphibious transports, after the Navy proposed ending that production early.

  • Adds $250 million in advanced funding for amphibious ships to be purchased in 2024.

  • Authorizes a multi-year procurement of 15 guided-missile destroyers and 25 ship-to-shore connectors.

  • Directs the Maritime Administrator to complete design and construction in U.S. shipyards up to 10 sealift vessels for use in National Defense Reserve Fleet.

More broadly, the bill largely endorses the Navy’s plan to build new ships in the coming year. It calls for funding to build eight vessels – two Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, two Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, one guided-missile frigate, one amphibious transport dock ship, one oiler and one towing/salvage/rescue ship.

The NDAA authorizes defense spending and sets defense policy, but actual spending levels will be set later in the year when Congress considers appropriations bills. In that way, the NDAA can act as a guide for lawmakers when they start deciding exactly how much to spend.

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