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Navy can't scrap ships, but can't fix them either

The guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens, part of the George Washington Carrier Strike Group, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, conducts a routine Western Pacific patrol in September 2012.

The Navy is stuck with a number of poorly performing ships it wasn't permitted to scrap but can't afford to fix because Congress hasn't resolved its budget stalemate.

Four Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers were on the Navy's decommissioning list for 2013 because repairing and upgrading them would cost billions of dollars. But Congress objected to the cuts and instead authorized money to maintain three of them.

That money has yet to materialize.

Congress failed to agree on a 2013 budget and instead placed government spending under a continuing resolution - a Band-Aid measure that keeps the government running at 2012 budget levels, with no new appropriations.

That leaves the Navy responsible for keeping three cruisers operational, including the Norfolk-based Anzio, without setting aside money to maintain or repair them, much less do necessary upgrades. As a result, the Anzio and two other cruisers - the Vicksburg, based in Mayport, Fla., and the Cowpens, in Yokosuka, Japan - are operating at diminished levels and with minimal staffing, able to do some local tasks, but not considered suitable for deploying overseas.

The conundrum is just one example of how the deadlocked budget process in the nation's capital is adding stress to the Navy's fleet, its personnel and its long-term spending.

The ships are available for sea training, deck landing qualifications and regional port visits, said Lt. Cmdr. Bill Urban, spokesman for Naval Surface Force Atlantic, which oversees the East Coast-based cruisers.

But the Anzio and Vicksburg cannot deploy and are limited to tasks that keep them close to port, he said. That's how it will be "until a long-term decision is made about their disposition," he said.

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Without upcoming deployments, the cruisers fall behind in other ways, too.

"They are not as high a priority for replacement manning as other ships are in the deployment process," Urban said.

The cruisers were designed to last another 10 to 15 years, but citing the cost of upgrades for the cruisers and two amphibious ships, the Navy submitted a proposal in early 2012 to prematurely decommission nine ships - seven cruisers and two dock landing ships.

Four cruisers were supposed to leave the fleet in 2013. One, the Port Royal, was damaged after running aground during sea trials off the coast of Hawaii in 2009. Three more were to be decommissioned in 2014.

Vice Adm. Bill Burke, the Navy's logistics boss, told members of House and Senate panels last spring that the cruisers are not only expensive to maintain but also are run down and need modernization and upgrades.

Navy officials have said the ships are often plagued by hull cracks, and they note that six of the seven need to be updated to carry ballistic missiles. To get all seven fully upgraded would cost more than $5 billion, Burke said.

Choosing to decommission them was a tough decision, Burke said, but the Navy needed to make the trade-off to ensure the readiness of the whole fleet and "avoid a hollow force."

Both the House and the Senate panels opposed prematurely cutting ships at a time when the fleet is expected to make do with fewer resources.

The House Armed Services Committee report stated that "it is less costly to maintain existing assets" and it is "concerned with the Navy's overall size of the fleet and sustained demand for naval forces, particularly in light of the strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific."

The Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense noted that the Navy initially invested $11.6 billion in the nine ships and cutting them creates "unnecessary and unaffordable" future shipbuilding requirements. It added that the Navy's long-term shipbuilding budget requires a sustained funding increase over the next two decades that might not come through.

Although Congress has not passed an appropriations bill, the National Defense Authorization Act signed by the president in early January prohibits the Navy from cutting the ships. It authorized $628.5 million for the Anzio, Vicksburg and Cowpens. It also authorized a specific review of the Port Royal.

The additions were part of several billion dollars Congress put back into the defense-spending budget sent to the president, despite recommended cuts by Pentagon leaders. The bill prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to issue an angry warning that lawmakers were restoring programs "without regard to an overall strategy," which could affect readiness.

"There is no free lunch here," Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee. "Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security."

Retired Adm. John Harvey, who as head of the Navy's Fleet Forces Command recommended cutting the cruisers, said Congress wants the Navy to have it all.

"But that's not the reality," he said.

"I suspect we may be given a false choice - but then no extra money comes, and what do I take it from? A different pocket," added Harvey, who retired in the fall. "If they say 'Keep the ships,' the smart thing is (to say) 'Here's the funding'... so you don't rob from Paul to pay Peter."

The head of the Navy's Regional Maintenance Command said in December that even if the money to retain and modernize the ships is forthcoming, there would be a lag time to get them fully operational.

"(Since) we were going to take those ships out of the inventory, the budgets to maintain them went away at the same time," Rear Adm. David Gale told Seapower Magazine. "If they decide to keep them, just putting the budget back in play doesn't mean that they instantaneously become maintained and ready assets."

Distributed by MCT Information Services
 

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