Getting more life from older Navy aircraft carriers piques lawmakers' interest
By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 12, 2018
The Navy is due to start retiring Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in a few years as newer Ford-class carriers begin to roll out of Newport News Shipbuilding.
That schedule might change.
With the Trump administration trying to expand the fleet, congressional curiosity is growing over whether Nimitz-class ships could stick around a few years longer.
The House defense blueprint directs the Navy to crunch the numbers on extending the life of the USS Nimitz, the oldest U.S. carrier now in service. It is scheduled to retire in 2023, the House bill states.
The Senate version of the bill takes that a step further. It asks the Navy to gather data on extending the life of all Nimitz-class carriers. Ten such ships are in service.
The House wants a report by March 2019. Senators are asking for theirs by January.
The bills don't specify how long the carriers should be extended, which shipyard should do the work or what it would cost. The Navy is expected to come up with options for lawmakers to consider.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supports the idea.
In a statement emailed to the Daily Press, he said: “As the Navy looks to expand to a 355-ship fleet over the next twenty years, an important component of that should include evaluating where we can extend the lives of our ships, instead of starting from scratch. This study will help us decide whether or not the Nimitz-class carriers are up for being extended and ensure that it’s a cost-effective move for taxpayers. I’m hopeful the Navy would turn to our public and private shipyards in Hampton Roads to accomplish this kind of extension.”
Two analysts also said the idea is worth exploring.
The Navy needs 12 carriers, up from the current 11, “to be able to address the missions that are required and the posture and the presence that the Navy needs to maintain,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Accelerating purchases is one way to expand the carrier fleet. Another option is to keep the older ships around longer.
But extending the life of an older, nuclear-powered carrier involves a number of considerations.
The carriers were designed to serve for 50 years on a normal deployment schedule. Midway through that time, the ships return to Newport News for a midlife overhaul that involves refueling the reactors. Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the Navy’s only option for this work.
As older carriers near the end of their 50-year service life, the Navy can figure out exactly how much life is left in those reactors.
It can coax more years out of these ships by reducing deployments as the vessels age. One option could be to extend that life out to 52 or 54 years. That would involve limited work and might be done in one of the Navy’s public shipyards, Clark said.
But if Navy leaders decide they can get several years of additional life from a Nimitz-class ship, it might be worth returning it to Newport News Shipbuilding for a more ambitious upgrade, Clark said.
Another option would be to refuel the ship again and keep it around for another 25 years. “But then you have to figure out how to modernize the rest of the ship,” Clark said. “You have to figure out if that’s worthwhile.”
Yet another consideration: The Navy only has nine carrier air wings, Clark said. Expanding to a 12-carrier fleet would also mean expanding its inventory of aircraft.
Bryan McGrath is the founding managing director of The FerryBridge Group, a consulting firm that specializes in naval and national security issues. A 21-year Navy veteran, his service included a stint commanding the Norfolk-based USS Bulkeley, a guided-missile destroyer.
He’s glad the Navy will consider the idea, but its feasibility will hinge on what the Navy would get for its investments. At this point, there are plenty of unknowns.
“It comes down to how much does it cost and what other important things we aren’t funding as a result,” he said.
If the Navy could spend $2 billion and get 10 more years of service from a Nimitz-class carrier, that might be something worth considering, he said. If the cost is $10 billion and the ship had to run a limited deployment schedule, that’s not a useful way to spend limited funds.
He agrees with Clark on the need for 12 carriers and a larger fleet in general. If the Navy simply relies on the current schedule of new construction and retirements, “it takes too long to get there,” he said.
Even under the defense-friendly Trump administration, the Navy has only returned to 2012 spending levels, and that was marginally sufficient to fund a 308-ship Navy, he said.
Trump and the Pentagon want a 355-ship fleet.
“The hole is deep and it’s hard to get out of,” Clark said, so examining the issue is a good start.
“That’s what an effective organization does,” he said. “It looks at all the options. I don’t know what the solution is, but getting them to think about it is part of it.”
The Navy has opted to go this route in the past.
It extended service lives for its fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines from 30 to 42 years, the Senate bill notes. Replacing those subs with new Columbia-class boats is now the Navy’s top priority.
In April, Navy leaders told Congress it could extend the service life of the entire class of Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers out to 45 years in order to reach its 355-ship goal sooner.
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