YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Navy has awarded a $50 million contract to prepare the aircraft carrier USS George Washington for nuclear defueling, even as looming defense cuts render the ship’s future uncertain.
The Huntington Ingalls shipbuilding division received the contract for advance planning, engineering, shipyard work and other measures at its facilities in Newport News, Virginia. The advance work would be expected to be completed by July 2015, according to a Defense.gov list of contract results issued Aug. 1.
Key lawmakers and military officials want to spend the $7 billion it will take to refuel and overhaul the ship, while keeping its air wing and support units active during the three to four years that the ship would be sidelined.
However, the Navy didn’t initially include funds for the overhaul in its 2015 budget request because of the looming automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
The House Appropriations Committee shifted $789 million toward the refueling program in July, but there’s no guarantee that the appropriation will make it through later House votes, or through any final defense bill agreed upon by the House and Senate. Congress is in recess until September.
“We hope this award is a first step toward the highly anticipated full award of the [overhaul] planning contract, said Chris Miner, the company’s vice president for in-service aircraft carrier programs.
Cutting the USS George Washington would reduce the aircraft carrier fleet to 10 ships, a move that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said in May would burn out sailors and ships faster.
“Some folks say, ‘Well, deployments will just be longer,’” Greenert said. “I say not necessarily, [because] there’s a limit to that.”
The Navy is now “making every effort” to revamp its long-term budget to find the $7 billion it needs to keep the carrier, said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, during a House subcommittee hearing in July.
It remains unclear how other Navy programs would be affected in order to save the carrier.
The USS Reagan is scheduled to replace the USS George Washington as the Navy’s Japan-based carrier during the second half of 2015.
Nimitz class carriers like the George Washington are scheduled to undergo a major overhaul when they reach the midpoint of their 50-year service life. The overhaul and nuclear refueling generally takes three to four years.