NORFOLK, Va. — The Navy’s efforts Thursday to convince a key U.S. House panel that it could save billions of dollars by mothballing 11 guided missile cruisers, including two in Norfolk, seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Top Navy officials are seeking to save $4.7 billion by taking half the fleet of 22 cruisers out of service next year and slowly modernizing them over several years before bringing them back on line.
But U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, the panel’s chairman, said he doubts the ships would ever return to service because there’s no certainty the money to update the cruisers would be available in the future.
“I don’t think this is a phased modernization plan,” Forbes said. “I think this is a phased euthanization plan, because when those ships go into dry dock, we have no assurance they’re coming back.”
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley told a House Armed Services subcommittee that automatic cuts known as sequestration are driving tighter defense spending.
Stackley said that when the ships are modernized, their life span would be extended for years.
His testimony before the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee marks a second effort by the Pentagon to mothball the cruisers. It included the plan in its budget proposal earlier this year, but the House disapproved and put language in its 2015 Pentagon budget to specifically block it.
Under the Navy’s proposal, the 11 cruisers, including the Norfolk-based Anzio and Vella Gulf, would be taken out of service next year and their crews reassigned. The vessels would not be decommissioned and could be returned to service early if needed, the Navy said.
Their gradual modernization would mean the affected cruisers, which would otherwise be due to retire in the 2020s, could serve into the 2030s, Stackley said.
Forbes, a Chesapeake Republican and frequent critic of the Obama administration, has long argued that the Navy’s fleet needs to grow rather than shrink. He has said the federal government needs to shift spending from other areas, including the Affordable Care Act, to bolster national defense.
“I reject any notion that we should lock into place the negative consequences of sequestration, and vigorously oppose any reduction of some of our most capable surface combatants on the altar of fiscal frugality,” he said.
When pressed Thursday, Stackley said the Navy needs 300 ships but is on track to have just 274 next year. The service’s long-range shipbuilding plan calls for expanding the fleet to more than 300 by 2019, but it’s unclear how it would pay for that.
Forbes said 274 ships “is an unacceptable figure that is the result of two decades of neglect.”
Similar budget pressures have sliced into the Navy’s nuclear power budget, prompting Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, to warn earlier this week that the cuts threaten operation of the fleet’s 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and 73 submarines.
Five nuclear-powered carriers and seven submarines are based in Hampton Roads.
If approved, the current proposed budget would mark the fifth straight time the Navy gets less money than requested for nuclear operations, Greenert wrote in a July 7 letter to Congress. In the past four years, the program has received $450 million less than was requested, he wrote.
The “persistent cuts,” Greenert wrote, put the Navy’s nuclear program “in the position of being unable to provide for a safe and reliable nuclear fleet.” It also affects production of new nuclear submarines and the processing of spent nuclear fuel, he wrote. Both of those occur at Newport News Shipbuilding.
“This approach is no longer sustainable.”