Navy challenged by House lawmakers on USS Harry S. Truman’s early retirement
By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 27, 2019
WASHINGTON— A Navy decision to decommission the USS Harry S. Truman, taking the aircraft carrier out of service 25 years early and put the savings into future investments, has left some House lawmakers scratching their heads at the service’s drastic cost-cutting measure at the expense of a seaworthy ship.
Some lawmakers argued the move goes against the Navy’s projected needs for the fleet only three years ago. The decision became a point of contention during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the committee’s subpanel on seapower and projection forces, told Navy and Marines officials at the hearing that mothballing the Truman is counter to the Navy’s assessment of how they needed to maintain the fleet.
“Why would then we retire the Truman 25 years early in relation to the demands that we see around us and with our adversaries building carriers at a pretty brisk pace?,” he asked them. China currently has two aircraft carriers and a third is under construction. Russia has only one aircraft carrier.
The Navy is “all in on the Ford [class] carrier and moving to that carrier as fast as we can,” responded James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research development and acquisition. He then highlighted the new carrier class’ features such as “increased survivability” and “increased capability that will allow us to fly the airwing of the future.”
Yet in another hearing earlier Tuesday, Wittman also questioned acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan about the Truman, and the Pentagon chief said the decision to decommission the carrier could be revisited.
“We can change these decisions,” Shanahan told members of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Truman is a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier based out of Norfolk, Va. and the fourth newest carrier in the fleet. The Ford-class carriers are the newest carrier class after the Nimitz, which makes up a total of 10 carriers in the fleet.
The Ford-class has a smaller “Island” structure, which includes the ship’s bridge, allowing more space for flight operations on the desk, according to a Navy website about the ship. It also has a smaller crew than the Nimitz-class carrier and is designed to allow the integration of future manned and unmanned aircraft with little modification.
The Navy’s only Ford-class carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is undergoing a year of maintenance and upgrades in Newport News, Va., but is three months behind in its availability to the fleet, according to Geurts.
The Navy’s decision to buy two Ford-class carriers was to “solidify that production line, get that moving,” he said. When they next looked at how they would compete in a future conflict, it “led to some tough choices” including retiring the Truman early in order to “look at other technologies.”
By retiring the Truman before its next overhaul in fiscal year 2024, the Navy would save $3.4 billion in the next five years as well as an additional $1 billion a year in savings related to its operations and maintenance, Rear Adm. Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for management and budget, said March 12 during a budget presentation at the Pentagon.
Shanahan said Tuesday that the Truman decision was a strategic choice and made in coordination with the buying of the two Ford-Class carriers. The total cost to the Navy for the two ships will be about $24 billion, according to a USNI News story in January.
“There isn’t a drawdown of capacity until mid-2020, so it’s not like this is an irreversible decision, but we took the savings to invest in the future force,” he said.
Shanahan also said the Pentagon will wait to see what the Navy comes back with as it updates “its 355-ship strategy and looks at its force structure.”
The decommissioning of the Truman would leave 10 aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet and, according to the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, it would drop to nine carriers by 2027.
“Tough decision. We tried to do it early enough so that we could have a robust discussion about it, given the weight of that decision,” said Geurts.
Vice Adm. William Merz, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, said the decision regarding the Truman was “not a warfighting decision, it was more of [an] investment decision.”
Based on studies by the Navy, Merz said they were directed to focus on ships designed for the future of the Navy. With the Navy’s plan to increase to 355 ships with 12 aircraft carriers, he said they wanted to grow the carrier fleet with the Ford-class.
The Navy decided to retire the ship early because they didn’t want to lose a year to “figure out which direction we want to go with these alternate investments,” Merv added.
Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., went back to Shanahan’s comments from the earlier hearing, and said it was his understanding that the Navy did not want the ship decommissioned.
“What would it take to revisit that and to basically change that decision so that we keep the USS Truman?,” he asked the Navy leadership during the Tuesday afternoon hearing.
Geurts defended the president’s budget plan to decommission the Truman, but added the purchase of the equipment for the refueling of the Truman was not to start until next year, allowing time to analyze and debate the decision.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said she was “really baffled” by the Navy’s budget and the Truman decision.
“I just can’t even comprehend the thought process that we’re quote-unquote saving money by decommissioning a ship halfway through its life,” she said. Luria also said the force structure assessment states the Navy needs 11 aircraft carriers.
Luria said she has met with the combatant commanders of U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command who do not receive all the carriers that they request in their operational areas.
“So how can you justify further reducing the number of carriers?” she asked.