US Navy Plans to Cut Cruisers by Half Amid Reports One Became Like a “Floating Prison”

Retiring the Ticonderogas could exacerbate the dangerously unhealthy stress on the service's other warships.

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The U.S. Navy is reportedly planning to decommission half of its remaining Ticonderoga-class cruisers within a decade, just as reports have emerged that life aboard one of them, the USS Shiloh, had become like a "floating prison." The decision could only put additional strain on the service, which has already begun to suffer dangerously low readiness and morale, leading to a series of deadly accidents, in the face of high operational demands, difficulties in obtaining new ships, and crumbling shipyard infrastructure.

On Oct. 9, 2017, Navy Times reported that the Navy would retire two Ticonderoga’s each year starting in 2020, with a total of 11 out of service by 2026. At present, the service has a total of 22 of the cruisers, the oldest of which, the USS Bunker Hill, joined the fleet in 1985. On the same day, the news outlet began to disclose horrifying details about life aboard another ship in the class, the USS Shiloh, in a series of articles based on official, internal command climate surveys it had obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

“I just pray we never have to shoot down a missile from North Korea,” on the Shiloh’s crew wrote. “Then our ineffectiveness will really show.”

Part of the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan’s accompanying Carrier Strike Group, itself part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet headquartered in Japan, the cruiser is tasked in part with the ballistic missile defense role, though the latest version of its primary interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA, remains in testing. In addition, to the increasing threat of North Korea’s arsenal, which the sailor noted, China is fielding a increasing number of long-range ballistic missiles of various types, including one, the DF-21D, that it has designed specifically to take out aircraft carriers and other large ships at sea. Ballistics missiles are quickly proliferating around the world in general, too, with 2017 having already seen other tests in Iran, Israel, and South Korea among other locales. 

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The Ticonderoga-class USS Cowpens fires a SM-2 missile during an exercise in 2012.

Displacing close to 10,000 tons with a full load, the Shiloh also performs a vital air defense role for the carrier group, with more than 120 vertical launch system (VLS) cells able to hold a variety of surface-to-air missiles, a long-range radar and associated Aegis combat system, and other weapon systems, sensors, and electronic warfare equipment. These include the Standard Missile-2 (SM-2), the increasingly capable RIM-174A, better known as the SM-6, and the RIM-162A Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, four of which can be quad-packed into each cell. The VLS can also launch Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles for stand-off attacks against targets on land, making the ship even more versatile. Its helicopters also provide anti-submarine screening for the inner sanctum of the Carrier Strike Group.

With unprecedented tensions on the Korean Peninsula and simmering disputes elsewhere in the Western Pacific, especially over freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, it’s terrifying to learn sailors called the Shiloh a “floating prison.” “It feels like a race to see which will break down first, the ship or it’s [sic] crew,” another member of the crew noted.

The man at the center of many of the complaints was the ship’s commanding officer, U.S. Navy Captain Adam Aycock. The service told Navy Times that it was aware of the issues, but did not explain then why Aycock was allowed to finish out his more than two year stint as Shiloh’s commander.

According to the survey’s the outlet obtained, around half of sailors had reported “a lot” of work-related stress in 2015, when U.S. Navy Captain Kurush Morris was in charge. More than 80 percent said this was the case under Aycock’s leadership.

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The USS Shiloh.

Underscoring the toxic leadership was the captain’s reported use of a punishment of three days in the ship’s brig with only bread and water for meals, reminiscent of a long gone era of Navy operations. Aycock would subject sailors to this regimen for infractions as minor as showing up late to their duty posts or violating curfew while in port.

“I do not wear my [USS Shiloh] ballcap at the [Navy Exchange store],” a sailor said in one of the surveys. “Even the taxi drivers on base know us for being the ‘USS Bread and Water.’”

The reports could help explain, at least in part, a bizarre episode earlier in 2017 in which one of the cruiser sailors hid for days in the ship's engine room. Petty Officer 3rd Class Peter Mims faces a court martial after admitting he deliberately avoided search parties, leading the rest of the crew to believe he had fallen overboard, prompting a massive search and rescue operation.

According to the surveys, things had gotten so bad for Mims and his shipmates that “even taxi drivers Know [sic] us by the ship who has the worst captain and people trying to commit suicide,” a sailor wrote in their comments. “I feel like I would be better off being a hobo in San diego [sic] than show up to work onboard [sic] USS Shiloh,” another said.

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Petty Officer 3rd Class Peter Mims.

That the Navy allowed the situation on board the ship to continue after three surveys full of negative comments has only raised new and serious questions about the state of the ships assigned to the Seventh Fleet and whether the problems might be more widespread. It of course begs the questions about whether the service felt, right or wrong, that it had limited options in order to meet its operational demands.

Unfortunately, the reports do appear to be well in line with a host of other emerging details about poor state of the Navy surface ships with its forward deployed command in Japan. This information has begun to emerge following a series of investigations into two deadly collisions earlier in 2017.

In June 2017, a container ship rammed into the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan, an accident that killed seven sailors. Then, in August 2017, the USS John McCain, another Arleigh Burke, collided with an oil tanker east of Singapore near the Strait of Malacca. Ten more sailors died.

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Damage to the hull of the USS John McCain after it collided with an oil tanker in August 2017.

This followed a pair of accidents earlier in the year. The Ticonderoga-class USS Antietam – one of the ships Navy Times says will end up retired in 2021 – ran aground in Japan. Another one of the cruisers, the USS Lake Champlain, which the Navy expects to decommission in 2022, got into an accident with a South Korean fishing boat.

The events surrounding Fitzgerald’s collision seemed so odd that it spawned a number of conspiracy theories. The John McCain’s accident, however, made it clear that there were larger institutional problems.

What has become clear is that due to a confluence of factors, including budget cuts and caps and problems with large shipbuilding programs such as the Littoral Combat Ship, the Seventh Fleet, along with other Navy commands, has been overworking crews and under-manning ships, often sending them out on patrols despite expired certifications. At the same time, commanding officers appear to have been reluctant to voice concerns or criticisms for fear of punishment by their own superiors.

At a hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2017, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer and U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson admitted that the service was only able to meet 40 percent of the total demand for surface warships. They acknowledged a broad problem and promised to fix it, including through independent studies.

Ron Sachs/CNP via AP

U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2017.

However, some members of Congress have questioned whether new research is either necessary or useful in turning the service around. Arizona’s Senator John McCain, a Navy veteran and whose father is the namesake of the destroyer at the center of the second deadly accident, had no problem dressing down Spencer and Richardson over the situation.

“It doesn’t take a study or RAND or [the] Mayo [Clinic] when you are working people 100 hours a week, OK?” he said. “I don’t have to ask RAND. I think I know what 100 hours a week does to people over time. And that’s been standard procedure for a long time.”

The initial reports of what happened aboard Fitzgerald in June 2017, which you can read about in detail here, are damning though, as are the first assessments of the McCain’s accident, which the Navy has described as “preventable.” The courage of sailors aboard each vessel seems to have been the only thing stopping both incidents from turning out even worse.

But it’s not entirely clear what the Navy really has the ability to do in the near term that won’t further upset the ability of its surface fleet to perform its core functions. There have been steady punishments for senior leaders at the Seventh Fleet, including the dismissal of the command’s top officer, Admiral Scott Swift in August 2017.  The service relieved McCain’s commanding, U.S. Navy Commander Alfredo Sanchez, and its second in command, Commander Jessie Sanchez, on Oct. 11, 2017.

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The USS Fitzgerald sits in dry dock in Japan in July 2017.

Beyond that, there are major limits for how fast the Navy could reasonably expect to increase the total size of its fleet or the sailors to man those ships, even if there were no politics and budgets involved. Shipbuilding in general has a long lead time and requires significant upfront investments in infrastructure and skilled workers. Once the shipyards get going, it’s easier to sustain production and steadily reduce costs, but only as long as there is demand and adequate funding. 

The aforementioned Littoral Combat Ship program was supposed to be a solution to many of these problems, offering an affordable ship that a small crew could operate in various limited scenarios to free up larger surface ships, such as the Arleigh Burkes and Ticonderogas, and their crews, for higher intensity missions. That has since turned into a nightmare project that delivered perpetually under-performing ships that have been still too much for the intentionally skeletonized crews to handle effectively.

Earlier in 2017, the Navy finally admitted it needed an entirely new and more capable frigate-type ship to meet its requirements. This was after it attempted to respond to criticism from legislators about its shipbuilding plans by hastily slipped another Littoral Combat Ship into the service’s budget request for the 2018 fiscal year after the proposal had already gone to Congress without any clear indication of how it planned to pay for the addition.

This all calls into question the Navy’s ability to sustain the ships it has now, as well as the small number it already has in production. The goal of a 355-ship fleet seems especially dubious in this context. It’s prompted the service to look serious at reactivating a number of older ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, and a number of Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. The latter plan would see the ships return to service with very limited capabilities. When it comes to keeping even the fleet it already has in an operational state, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway recently took a look at the sorry state of the Navy's critical shipyards that keep many of its most advanced vessels running. The picture isn't pretty to say the least.

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The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its accompany strike group return to Japan from a patrol in November 2016.

The Navy’s plans to at least mothball half of the Ticonderogas by 2026 is only likely to prompt more criticisms and questions from Congress about the service’s priorities. It is possible that it could put the older cruisers through a service life extension program to stabilize that part of the surface fleet, but again, the money for that work would have to come from somewhere. Whether or not American shipyards have the capacity to turn over the ships and get them back into action in a reasonable amount of time and in a cost-effective manner are separate, but equally important questions.

There's already the possibility the Navy may simply decide to try and squeeze more life out of the Ticonderogas as is, without any significant overhauls or modernization programs. In June 2017, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Tom Moore, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, suggested that it might be possible to extend the service life of steel-hulled ships another five or 10 years with just routine maintenance. Though many of the same budgetary concerns would apply to such a plan, the Navy has at least requested additional funds for these kinds of basic repairs as part of Pentagon-wide push to improve overall readiness across the U.S. military in the budget request for the 2018 fiscal year.

What is clear is that the Navy is rapidly reaching its breaking point and people have already died. Sailors’ comments about their time aboard Shiloh appear extreme in nature, but hardly detached from larger, service-wide issues. It’s a dangerous cycle to be in as well, since pressure to make do with less puts strain on personnel who are then more inclined to leave as soon as they’re able, further reducing to total available manpower, and so on and so forth.

“It’s only a matter of time before something horrible happens,” one sailor aboard the cruiser wrote. “It’s a place we despise going to and cannot wait to leave,” another declared.

Now that horrible things have happened, it’s clearly well past time for the Navy to do some serious soul searching about how to move forward and change the service’s operational climate once and for all.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com