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Navy cruiser cut plan raises carrier questions

The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf transits the Aegean Sea on July 6, 2014.

Congress and the Navy might have settled a debate over aircraft carriers, but they're still squabbling over the ships that serve as escorts.

The fate of Navy cruisers, workhorses of the fleet that protect carriers on the open seas, has national and regional implications. The Navy wants to temporarily shelve 11 of its 22 cruisers and gradually return them to the fleet in more modern condition. Two of the 11 are based in Norfolk. The USS Vella Gulf and the USS Anzio have about 680 sailors spread across two crews.

The plan, which is unprecedented, has prompted skepticism in Hampton Roads — from key members of Congress to the commercial shipbuilding industry. Because the long-range plan depends on support from future Navy leaders and upcoming sessions of Congress, critics fear that a temporary shelving might end up permanent.

The debate played out last week in a hearing chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, considered an influential voice on shipbuilding. What the Navy calls a phased modernization program sounds more like "phased euthanasia," he said.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley said the plan isn't perfect, but is the best way to maintain military strength as money runs short and other needs pile up.

"We're doing this because of the budget," he said.

Plan, and problems

On paper, the plan is simple. The 11 targeted cruisers are the newest in the fleet. As older cruisers age out, the newer ships are modernized and brought back as replacements, giving the Navy its cruisers well into the 2030s, Stackley said. Without the plan, the current cruisers are all retired by the late 2020s, he said.

The House-passed National Defense Authorization Act already blocks the Navy's plan. It forbids obligating or spending money toward ship retirement, inactivation or placement in storage. Conversely, the Navy's plan would save taxpayers $4.7 billion over the long term, Stackley said.

Forbes remained skeptical. The Navy had previously proposed decommissioning seven cruisers and Congress opposed that. Why should Congress believe future Navy leaders will stick with this plan?

"Give me some comfort level," he told Stackley.

Shipyards in Virginia and elsewhere would see extra work under the Navy's plan because cruisers would be tied up in the yards. But operators of those yards share Forbes' concern, said Bill Crow, president of the Norfolk-based Virginia Ship Repair Association.

"The potential of repairs is viewed with skepticism by the commercial ship repair industry," Crow said Friday."There is just so much uncertainty in the future and so many unanswered questions."

Crow, a 30-year Navy veteran, said he has never seen a plan where ships are deliberately taken out of service for periods of time and then returned. There are concerns with ships sitting idle for that long.

"If you take that ship and tie it up, things will degrade just from having a piece of metal sitting in salt water," he said.

Carrier implications

The Forbes hearing began on a positive note. Stackley said the Navy is "making every effort" to set aside money to refuel the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, a multibillion-dollar job that provides work for Newport News Shipbuilding and contractors in Hampton Roads.

But the debate over cruisers touches on how carriers are protected once they sail out of Naval Station Norfolk. Anyone in Hampton Roads who follows Navy homecomings and deployments knows that aircraft carriers are never alone. They deploy with cruisers and destroyers armed with guided missiles.

Cruisers are more suited to escort aircraft carriers on the open seas, said Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, director of surface warfare, who testified with Stackley. Cruisers in a carrier strike group host a Navy captain and senior staff assigned to air defense. A cruiser is better suited, both physically and technologically, to handle this task than a destroyer.

During deployments, "we will keep the cruiser with the aircraft carrier and send destroyers on other missions," Rowden said.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., asked Rowden what would happen if cruisers were not available for a carrier strike group. Rowden said if that role fell to a guided missile destroyer, the Navy would have to boost training "and perhaps increase the level of experience" of a destroyer crew.

After the hearing, Forbes said in an interview that the cruiser debate is similar to what happened with the aircraft carrier Washington. The Navy first said it would decommission the ship in 2016 if sequestration cuts returned. Congress opposed that, and it now the Navy appears to be complying. Congress has to show the same resolve with cruisers.

The carrier debate "would not have moved in that direction until Congress took that stand," Forbes said.

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