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Rep. Forbes says carrier fleet 'numbers don't add up' when considering worldwide threats

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: November 4, 2015

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. aircraft carrier fleet is "a little bit behind the power curve" after years of strain, a Navy admiral said Tuesday, prompting lawmakers to ask if the Pentagon should build more of the nuclear-powered ships.

The testimony at a House Armed Services hearing put a different spin on the debate about the future of aircraft carriers. Some politicians, notably Sen. John McCain, have pushed the Navy to consider smaller, less expensive alternatives to the multibillion-dollar ships.

The House panel — which combined two subcommittees chaired by congressmen from Hampton Roads — depicted a carrier fleet that is too small to meet emerging threats.

Comparing the current size of the fleet to what is required, "the numbers just don't add up," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake. The hearing combined members of his sea power panel with the readiness subcommittee chaired by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland.

The debate has long-term implications for Newport News Shipbuilding, the only U.S. shipyard that builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and by extension the economy of Hampton Roads, where thousands of jobs depend on shipbuilding.

By law, the U.S. is required to have 11 aircraft carriers. The fleet currently stands at 10, a temporary waiver granted by Congress because the USS Enterprise was retired in 2012 and the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford won't join the fleet until next year.

Because of required tests, the Ford will not deploy until 2021, according to testimony.

But even a 10-carrier fleet isn't as big as it might seem. Four are in various stages of maintenance. A fifth is on its way to the Newport News shipyard for an extended overhaul. The maintenance list is as follows, according to testimony and media reports:

  • The USS Abraham Lincoln is undergoing a midlife overhaul at Newport News.
  • In June, the USS Nimitz began a 16-month repair period at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility. That same month, the USS George H.W. Bush entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard for eight months of work.
  • In August, the USS Carl Vinson began a six-month, $300 million overhaul in San Diego.
  • The USS George Washington, while operational, is due at Newport News for its midlife overhaul in 2017.

The Navy currently does not have an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, a gap that will last three months and hasn't been seen since 2007, Forbes said.

Meanwhile, Navy leaders have said they want two carriers always deployed and three ready to go on short notice — a two-plus-three configuration that would come into play during large-scale conflicts.

The military has "severely overused the carrier force" in recent years, said Vice Adm. John C. Aquilino, a deputy chief of naval operations As a result, the Navy cannot "push forward the amount of carrier presence we'd like in a sustainable and affordable manner," while keeping a near-combat-ready reserve.

And that has put the fleet "a little bit behind the power curve," he said.

The increased tempo can take years off the life of an aircraft carrier, designed to last 50 years. The Navy has been operating carriers faster than a pace for which they were designed, said Rear Adm. Thomas J. Moore, program executive officer for aircraft carriers.

It led some lawmakers to question whether 11 carriers might not be enough.

"Wouldn't twelve carriers make this all easier?" asked Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.

Conceptually yes, but the Navy has never done a study to quantify how another carrier strike group would ripple through the fleet and affect deployments, maintenance schedules and other operations, said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, defense and acquisitions.

©2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
Visit the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) at www.dailypress.com
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U.S. Navy and Chilean air force aircraft participate in a fly-by of the USS George Washington during the aircraft carrier's Southern Seas deployment on Oct. 19, 2015.
DAVID BABKA/U.S. NAVY

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