WASHINGTON ― Amid reports the Biden administration is revisiting the Trump administration’s attempt to save money with an early retirement of the Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, key lawmakers from naval hub Virginia are warning it’s a blind alley, strategically and politically.
“This is one of the things that gets revisited again and again, and I’ll tell you now that I will fight for the same outcome as last Congress,” said House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Elaine Luria, D-Va., said Monday at a Hudson Institute event. “We’ve invested a lot in our carriers, and it’s not time to decommission them halfway through their life.”
As the Pentagon builds what’s expected to be a flat 2022 budget submission to Congress, it’s considering a reduction in aircraft carrier force structure, USNI News reported last week, citing two unnamed sources. That fueled concerns from shipbuilding advocates that the Biden administration would try to forgo a 2024 mid-life refit and refueling to the Truman and instead propose decommissioning it.
With less than four months left in the Trump administration, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper unveiled a new vision for the Navy, called Battle Force 2045, that eclipsed previous plans to grow the fleet to 355 ships to instead grow it to more than 500 manned and unmanned vessels.
“The bottom line is getting rid of ships when you’re trying to build the Navy is not a smart decision, and I would like justification as to why,” Luria said.
In 2019, President Donald Trump planned to decommission the Truman to save several billion dollars, as a component of a block-buy for the follow-on Ford class. But Trump reversed course after a bipartisan group of lawmakers opposed it from the start, arguing the Truman has more than 20 years of life left and that U.S. law requires 11 carriers be in service.
Then, as now, lawmakers from Virginia ― where defense spending makes up more than 10 percent of the economy ― are leading the charge.
“As was made clear to the previous administration, retiring the USS Harry S. Truman two decades ahead of schedule would be a serious mistake given the capabilities it provides to the Navy,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement to Defense News.
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Senate Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee Chair Tim Kaine, D-Va., pointed to the cost of recycling the nuclear carrier Enterprise ($1.5 billion) and recent 11 month deployment of the USS Nimitz to the Mideast and Pacific as proof carriers are “expensive to retire and remain in constant demand.”
“I am skeptical this proposal will yield savings or avoid severe operational impacts,” Kaine said in a statement, adding: “I have yet to see a business case to decommission one early and do not anticipate seeing one soon.”
In broader remarks Monday, Luria recommended extending the service-life of older types of ships while new classes of ships are being brought on line. As opposed to the Battle Force 2045 plan, which called for aggressively decommissioning cruisers, Luria wanted a deeper analysis.
“In our pursuit of a larger fleet and more presence in the Pacific, you need to build more ships, we also need to maintain the ships that we have, and operate them as efficiently as possible,” she said. “And we need to quit getting rid of the ships we have that still have operational life left.”
House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee’s top Republican, Rep. Rob Wittman, pointed to recent, lengthy carrier deployments to meet the demands of combatant commanders in the Middle East and Pacific.
“It is obvious based on deployment schedule that we are breaking the fleet trying to supply the COCOMs the volume of carriers being requested—and now the [Defense] Department is mulling removing one from circulation earlier?” Wittman, of Virginia, said in a statement to Defense News on Monday.
“I understand looking for savings, but this doesn’t pass the smell test. If the Department decides to attempt a to cancel an [refueling and complex overhaul] again, I am confident they will be met with a strong Congressional rebuke.”
At a hearing last week, Wittman asked U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s chief, Adm. Phil Davidson, if he thought it would make sense to remove a carrier from the fleet. Davidson replied that he supported the legal requirement for 11 carriers, adding: “There is no capability that we have that can substitute for an aircraft carrier in my view.”
David Larter contributed to this report.