Testimony paints bleak picture for Newport News shipyard if US scratches carrier
By Hugh Lessig | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: March 13, 2014
As Rep. Randy Forbes sees it, the Obama administration is already working to reduce the nation's aircraft carrier fleet. It's just that no one wants to say it out loud.
Forbes, R-Chesapeake, chaired one congressional hearing Wednesday and participated in another that, taken together, painted a bleak picture of U.S. military strength if the 11-carrier fleet drops to 10.
That could happen in 2016 when the USS George Washington arrives at Newport News Shipbuilding. The shipyard plans to refuel the carrier, giving it another 25 years of life. But if budget cuts under sequestration return that year, the Navy says it would move to decommission the ship, not refuel it.
That would result in millions of dollars in lost business for the shipyard, because decommissioning a nuclear-powered carrier is a less expensive job than a refueling.
Outside the shipyard, it would translate into less work for subcontractors and greater strain on military families in Hampton Roads as other carriers lengthen deployments to compensate. Naval Station Norfolk is the only East Coast port for carriers, and thousands of livelihoods are linked to the massive ships.
But Wednesday's hearings focused on a more global scenario: how the U.S. military stands up against China and Russia in the event one carrier is retired.
The Navy is already putting greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region, said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations. Current requirements are to have two carriers available full time and a third carrier for three to four months out of the year.
"If you go from eleven to ten carriers, you exacerbate what is already a very difficult problem," he said.
Retired Adm. Robert J. Natter, the former commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said the budget trend is going the wrong way from a national security perspective.
"It's blatantly obvious that our investment accounts in our military are on the down slope, and nations like China and Russia, their investment accounts are on the up slope," he said. "There's going to be a meeting of those... slopes."
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said he wants to keep the George Washington and ticked off a list of problems should it be retired from service. But refueling it will not be cheap, and that becomes a problem in the event sequestration budget cuts return in 2016.
"To keep it, over the five years starting in FY16, is a seven billion-dollar additional bill," he said. "And there are very few places that you can find seven billion dollars in any budget."
But Natter, who now heads a consulting firm, said retiring the George Washington halfway through its service life would be "incredibly troubling, and in my opinion, blatantly short-sighted." But unless Congress takes a longer term strategic view, Natter said today's budget problems will "scratch one flattop, a feat no enemy has been able to accomplish for over 70 years."
Forbes did not directly criticize Navy leaders, but said he fears the Obama administration has already made up its mind to retire George Washington.
"There's a huge disconnect between the rhetoric we're hearing and the actions that are being taken," he said, noting the administration has removed $243 million in planning money for the refueling.
"If you wanted to reduce our carriers from 11 to 10, you would take it out," he said. "If you wanted to . . . delay the decision, you'd leave the money in."
Mabus repeated what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said: The Navy wants to keep 11 carriers, but it must also plan for the worst-case scenario. Forbes was not convinced.
After the day's hearings, he issued a statement that ended with this sentence:
"By refusing to execute planning funds or to procure supplies critical to protecting our carrier fleet, this administration has undeniably made a decision that they will advocate to reduce our carrier fleet; they just lack the courage to admit it."