The Puzzling Case Of The Navy's Attempt To Retire Supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman Early

Legislators are already opposing the proposal, which contradicts every known requirement and policy, and we don't truly know if it's even real at all.

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The U.S. Navy is reportedly planning to at least delay a major overhaul and refueling of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, a decision that would force the ship into early retirement. Congress is almost certain to prevent this from ever occurring and it also flies in the face of the service's own repeated complaints of a carrier "gap." This calls into question whether this entire plan, if it is even a real proposal, might actually be an effort to get legislators to approve additional funding, not less, for various programs.

The Washington Post was first to report the proposed course of action, but without naming the specific Nimitz-class carrier, on Feb. 26, 2019. Breaking Defense subsequently reported that the ship in question was the Truman and obtained more specifics about the plan on Feb. 27, 2019. Foreign Policy and USNI News both laid out additional information about the proposal in stories on Mar. 1, 2019.

What's the plan?

The Post said that canceling the carrier's mid-life rehab process, known formally within the Navy as a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH), could free up as much as $4 billion dollars for other priorities. USNI News subsequently reported that the total amount was $5.5 billion, but that there had only ever been around $16.9 million in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2020 budget request. 

Breaking Defense noted that the full savings over time could be up to $30 billion, taking into account an operating cost for Truman of around $1 billion per year through its planned retirement date in 2048. So far, the Pentagon and the Navy have both declined to comment on the record about the scope of the proposal, how much money it would make available for spending elsewhere, and when.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned in December 2018, had first proposed the plan to the Navy in exchange for approving a block buy of two new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers at once, according to Foreign Policy. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is now Acting Secretary of Defense, reportedly supported the decision initially and has not reversed it. The Pentagon, under Shanahan, signed off on the block buy in January 2019.

The RCOH for Truman would involve major renovations and modernization of the ship, as well as replacing the fuel in its nuclear reactors. Under the existing plan, the carrier was supposed to enter Newport News Shipbuilding’s shipyard in Virginia in 2024 and return to the fleet in 2028.

If the Navy gets approval to axe Truman’s RCOH, it would have to decommission the ship decades earlier, likely sometime in the mid-2020s. The exact date would be largely be up to how fast the existing fuel in the carrier's reactors runs down.

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The USS Harry S. Truman sails in the Atlantic Ocean in December 2018.

What's the issue?

The service faces immediate legislative obstacles. Congress has enshrined in law a requirement for the U.S. Navy to have at least 11 carriers in service at any time. The service meets this demand at present by counting the first-in-class USS Gerald R.Ford along with the ten Nimitz-class ships.

The Navy plans to commission the next Ford-class carrier, the future USS John F. Kennedy, in 2024. Depending on when Truman would end up forced to leave service, the Navy could find itself in real danger of breaking the law. Ford herself has been beset by numerous difficulties and delays that might only increase this risk.

But “the Truman is only about 25 years old which in [terms of] an aircraft carrier is actually pretty young,” Representative Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut and is in charge of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower Subcommittee, told Defense News on Feb. 28, 2019. “So, we just approved a two-carrier block buy in September. So, to do that and then reduce the size of the carrier fleet seems like a contradictory policy, as far as I’m concerned.”
 
To be fair, Ford is still some time away from being combat capable, meaning that the Navy realistically has less than 11 carriers already. This has been the case since 2012, when the service inactivated Enterprise and began preparing her for decommissioning.

But in terms of operational requirements and policy, the Navy and Congress have been in agreement that even 11 carriers aren't enough. "We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world," Randy Forbes, then a Representative for Virginia, said in 2014. The year before, U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, then in command of U.S. Pacific Command, told legislators the he couldn't meet his regional requirements with only 11 carriers available.

In 2016, the Navy determined that this was the optimal number was 12 and Congress made this a formal policy goal in the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 2019 Fiscal Year. Lawmakers stopped short of making it a legal requirement. President Donald Trump has, at least in the past, also endorsed this idea, which is part of a larger, long-standing Navy push to increase the overall size of its combat fleets to 355 ships in total

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The first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford.

Do we need this many carriers?

Historically, the reasoning for having a dozen carriers has been to maintain a constant naval aviation presence in the Western Pacific, the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf, as well as having another ship forward-deployed in Japan. Theoretically, with 12 flattops in total, the Navy could have four ships deployed in each one of those locations, another four preparing or heading out to relieve them, and four undergoing maintenance and other post-deployment activities, thought it has generally not worked out this way for a variety of reasons. The extra ships also provide for a surge capability in the event that it is necessary to sortie additional carriers. 

Still, freeing up $1 billion a year for the next three decades or so, could give the Navy space to invest in other priorities. Just in the last year or so, when it comes to ships, the service has initiated plans to buy a new class of frigates, begun developing an all-new Large Surface Combatant, discussed adding two new classes of submarines onto of the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, and begun laying the groundwork for growing the fleets of unmanned surface and underwater vehicles.

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An artist's rendition of the future first-in-class ballistic missile submarine USS Columbia.

This doesn’t take into account a host of other modernization efforts underway, including developing or otherwise buying new missiles to its surface ships and submarines, including hypersonic types, as well as buying advanced manned and unmanned aircraft, including the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone. On Feb. 28, 2019, the Navy declared it head reached Initial Operational Capability with the F-35C, marking the beginning of actually deploying operational squadrons with the type and paving the way for larger purchases of the aircraft. The Navy is also still struggling to reverse serious personnel shortages, which a major issue that could require additional funding to fix through monetary incentives and other initiatives.

Furthermore, Mattis and Shanahan reportedly questioned the long-term viability of the aircraft carrier as a basic concept, according to Foreign Policy. Critics have contended for years that potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, will only continue to develop increasingly advanced weapons, especially anti-ship missiles and submarines, which could eventually render the aircraft carrier obsolete in high-end conflicts.

Imaginechina via AP

China's DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile, which reportedly has an anti-ship capability. Chinese media has dubbed it the "carrier killer" and it is one of the weapons that critics of carriers in general often point to as in support of their argument.

But the Navy remains unmoved by these assertions, even after apparently accepting the Pentagon's terms, which still resulted in them getting approval to buy two new aircraft carriers. The service sees these ships as a key part of its future plans and routinely complains about a growing carrier “gap.” 

This has led the Navy to develop and implement a series of new deployment models to try and meet its continuing demands with fewer ships. There has even been talk of extending the life of the USS Nimitz to help get to the 12 carrier fleet goal. The Navy also briefly considered reactivating the conventionally-powered USS Kitty Hawk for the same reason.

All this, among other things, appears to be was what Courtney was referring to when he rightly said the decision to cancel Truman’s RCOH seemed “contradictory.” But this contradiction may be entirely by design. 

So, what's going on?

By all indications, Pentagon’s upcoming budget proposal for the 2020 Fiscal Year, including the individual requests from the different services, is set to be smaller overall than it was for Fiscal Year 2019. Congress, of course, will get the final say and, by agreeing to the Pentagon's conditions to get the new Fords, the Navy seems to have placed legislators in the uncomfortable position of either allowing the plan for Truman to go ahead or finding more money in the budget. 

Lawmakers similarly rejected a plan that President Barack Obama’s administration first proposed in 2014 to retire the Nimitz-class carrier USS George Washington early. At that the time, the argument was also about the need to trim the defense budget. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 had built upon the Budget Control Act of 2011, putting even more severe caps in place on defense spending as part of a process known as sequestration.

The Pentagon described things such as decommissioning George Washington ahead of schedule as the necessary “hard choices” that had to get made to meet the letter of the law. The comments from the unnamed Pentagon staffers who first revealed the new plan to send Truman into mothballs early to The Washington Post seem to fit a similar argument, even though the U.S. government is not longer hamstrung by a sequester.

Cutting Truman’s RCOH is another “hard choice” that Mattis and Shanahan, no matter their apparent objections to the carrier in general, would have had to have known would face extreme opposition in Congress. Legislators were apparently largely unaware that this “deal” existed until the Post reported it, according to subsequent reports.

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The Nimitz-class carrier USS George Washington.

"Hard choices"

Congress is now staring at a limited number of options if the Navy does decide to include the measure in its upcoming budget request. Legislators can accept Truman’s early retirement, they could look into deferring or modify the Ford block buy, or they could pass a final budget that includes both.

Making any changes to the Ford block buy contract, which the Navy signed in January 2019, could result in costly penalties or otherwise be prohibitively difficult to manage depending on how the deal is structured. Separately, Seapower Subcommittee head Courtney has already indicated he has no intention of even entertaining the idea of cutting a Nimitz-class carrier until the next budget cycle.

“This is really a 2021 issue in terms of timing, when the Truman has to go into its refueling,” Courtney said to Defense News. “So, I think in terms of it getting any endorsement in the Seapower mark this year I think is zero.”

AP Photo/The Day, Dana Jensen

Representative Joe Courtney, right, walks with then Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert during a visit to the Electric Boat Shipyard in Connecticut in 2012.

“We have made a significant investment in these ships,” Representative Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican who is also the ranking GOP member on the Seapower Subcommittee and a leading proponent of a 355-ship Navy, told The Virginian-Pilot. “I am perplexed why anyone would consider taking the cornerstone of the United States naval force and allowing it to atrophy.”

A lack of endorsement from the Seapower Subcommittee wouldn’t automatically prevent legislators from still approving the Navy's plan for Truman, but it would make it highly unlikely to make it into the 2020 Fiscal Year defense spending bill. The Ford block buy has also enjoyed considerable support on Capitol Hill.

Dave Ellis/The Free Lance-Star via AP

Virginia Representative Rob Wittman.

The industrial base

In addition, there are concerns that even delaying the construction of new carriers could set back getting them into service, if not make it difficult to build them at all in the future. Shipbuilding is an inherently long-lead time affair and carriers especially so given their size and complexity.

Changing the schedule for building new Fords could prompt Newport News Shipbuilding to lay off hundreds, if not thousands, of skilled workers and cut back on buying various materials and equipment in the interim. If that happened, it would be time-consuming and expensive to rehire that workforce and reestablish the required supply chains, which would lead to cost increases with the ships, which have already seen significant cost overruns.

Newport News has warned that there could be some risks of this happening just from canceling the Truman’s RCOH. The delay in the start of George Washington's rehab led the shipbuilder cut around 1,200 jobs even though it went ahead in the end. It’s also worth noting that this one shipyard has been responsible for building every one of the Navy's nuclear-powered supercarriers.

Rob Ostermaier/The Daily Press via AP

The future USS John F. Kennedy under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding's shipyard in Virginia in September 2018.

A RCOH is “an extremely complex engineering and construction project which involves more than 680 suppliers from 40 states providing material and services critical to the overhaul process,” Beci Brenton, a spokesperson for Huntington Ingalls Industries, Newport News’ parent company, said in a statement to The Virginian-Pilot. “The stability of this industrial base is critical to our ability to continue to build and maintain the Navy fleet our Navy and nation needs.”

The deliberate mention of 40 states having vested financial interests in Truman getting her rehab as scheduled only further points to the broad political forces that will likely be opposed to scrapping that plan. Legislators from Virginia, where the shipyard is located, have already been vocally opposed to this idea.

“These reports, which I just heard yesterday, are really puzzling,” Virginia Senator Tim Kaine told reporters on Feb. 28, 2019. “It’s just a waste of the investment if you do not refuel a carrier that has another 25 years of life.”

“You wouldn’t do that unless you intended to maintain the 11-carrier Navy,” Kaine added, referring to the block buy of two additional Fords.

What happens now?

If Congress is unwilling or unable to slow buying more Fords and won't allow the Navy to halt plans for Truman’s rehab, then it has to fund both. At the same time, if the service still insists that it still has to cut from somewhere in order to pay for more pressing priorities and still keep costs within the requirements of slimmer overall defense budget, legislators could find themselves faced with the prospect of either trading something else in exchange for the RCOH or having to find additional money.

Truman isn't the only significant cut the Navy is reportedly already looking at in the upcoming defense budget when it comes to shipbuilding. The service will reportedly propose deferring the purchase of two additional San Antonio-class landing platform dock amphibious ships until sometime after the 2020 Fiscal Year, according to Breaking Defense

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The first-in-class USS San Antonio landing platform dock.

Again, the Navy says it needs to do this in order to free up funds for other priorities. But there is likely to be yet more backlash from Congress for a similar mix of policy and political reasons, not least of which additional concerns about maintaining the industrial base around these ships, which Huntington Ingalls builds at its shipyard Mississippi. 

The options again are either to acquiesce to the Navy's proposal or insert additional funds into the budget. Congress has already shown itself willing to do the latter with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, adding three more of these ships into the last spending bill beyond what the service had asked for. The Navy and legislators have also voiced concerns about the industrial base suffering if LCS construction slows.

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An Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship under construction.

There are alternatives

None of this is to say that it might not be worthwhile for the Navy to actually re-evaluate its carrier needs. We at The War Zone have noted on multiple occasions that there are practical and cost benefits to moving away from requirements for 11 or 12 supercarriers, such as the Nimitz- or Ford-classes, and adopting a mix of ships of that size and smaller flattops.

Having a mix of supercarriers and lighter, cheaper, conventionally-powered carriers would allow for a larger, but more flexible force, one that is not nearly as heavily tied to long and extremely costly programmatic maintenance periods. Since the 1980s, the overall size of a carrier air wing has shrunk due to ever-increasing capabilities of individual aircraft, thanks in no small part to advances in precision-guided munitions.

Smaller carriers with smaller air wings could take on lower-magnitude missions, freeing up supercarriers for deployments that require their additional capacity. The light flattops could augment supercarriers to more readily distribute airpower throughout a particular region during distributed operations, as well. They could also eliminate the need to use the larger ships for basic training duties, such as naval aviators’ carrier qualifications.

The Navy, working with the U.S. Marine Corps, has already demonstrated that amphibious assault ships can provide limited, but sustained aerial support in lieu of a carrier in certain situations. The Navy’s purchase of the USS America, an aviation-focused amphibious assault ship, reflects this reality.

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The first-in-class USS America amphibious assault ship, in the foreground, passes by the Nimitz-class carrier Carl Vinson.

In 2017, the Marines publicly revealed that they had been working on a concept known as the “Lightning Carrier,” which would involve embarking between 16 and 20 F-35Bs on an amphibious assault ship, effectively turning it into a light carrier. You can read more about this concept, which evolved from earlier “Harrier Carrier” concepts using the AV-8B Harrier jump jet, here.

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A look at the deck configurations of the USS America, also known as LHA 6, and her sister ship, the future USS Tripoli, or LHA 7, as well as that of the significantly redesigned forthcoming USS Bougainville, or LHA 8.

If nothing else, a carrier fleet only made up of supercarriers looks to be increasingly unsustainable in the long run. Ford has already cost the Navy $13 billion and still needs significant work to ensure it can actually perform in combat. The hope is that the second Ford-class carrier, the future USS John F. Kennedy, will escape some of these problems, but they are already more than a billion dollars more expensive than the Navy’s original estimate. None of these figures include the annual operating costs of the increasingly complex ships, which the Navy claims will be somewhat more efficient than their predecessors, but that has yet to be proven. 

Cost savings from retiring Truman early also need to take into account the expense of scrapping a nuclear aircraft carrier, something no one has ever done. The Navy is still working through how to go about doing this with Enterprise, with estimates ranging as high as $1.5 billion to break down that ship.

Lack of support

Unfortunately, there has been relatively limited support within the Navy and Marines or from Congress for any actual alternative proposal. The final National Defense Authorization Act for the 2018 Fiscal Year nixed a clause that would’ve required the Navy to study smaller carrier concepts.

The Marines also rejected our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a briefing on the Lightning Carrier concept from 2012, arguing that its contents remained “pre-decisional.” The U.S. government can legally withhold information from release under the FOIA if it argues that the details might prejudice decision makers or present an inaccurate impression of U.S. government policy.

It’s also an exemption to the law that is routinely abused to conceal controversial or embarrassing records. Whatever the reality is in this case, the Marines do not appear to have made the Lighting Carrier concept formal doctrine so far. 

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US Marine Corps F-35Bs on board the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in February 2019.

All told, with there still being a legal requirement for an 11 carrier force, a policy goal to eventually have 12 flattops, no active plans for alternative ships, and political opposition mounting by the day, it seems hard to see how the Navy, or the Pentagon, expect the plan to cancel Truman’s RCOH will ever go ahead. At the same time, it is difficult to see how Mattis and Shanahan wouldn't have known all of these things beforehand. 

This can only call into question what they would've ever expected to get out of this strategy. It seems almost inevitable that the Navy will get both its new carriers and Truman's RCOH and all the Pentagon will only get a battle with Congress in return.

The idea that the two men were diametrically opposed to new carriers, but agreed to let the Navy purchase two carriers in exchange for giving up one ahead of schedule already seems curious. There is no information, so far, on just how distasteful Mattis and Shanahan actually found carriers and what their ultimate plan for the Navy's flattop inventory was in the end. The Navy's own most recent long-term shipbuilding plan already suggests that the service might only have nine carriers in service by 2048. 

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The Navy's ship inventory projections through 2048, as of February 2018.

Even if the Pentagon's eventual plan was to drastically cut back the number of carriers in total, picking a fight with Congress over Truman, and doing so now, seems wholly unnecessary and unproductive. It's certainly not worth the effort and spent political capital to try – and likely fail – to free up less than $17 million in the next budget cycle.

If anything, the entire exercise seems most likely to result in a strong rebuke from Congress in the form of additional funding and might potentially prompt additional legal measures that block the Pentagon from doing anything to threaten the Navy's carrier plans in the future. We have seen this happen before in the ongoing fight between legislators and the U.S. Air Force over the future of the A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft.

With so many contradictions and questions, there is also a possibility that this proposal isn't even real. The Navy or the Pentagon might have decided it was in their interests to craft this proposal specifically to prompt the responses we've already from members of Congress. It seems quite possible, if not outright probable, that this tactic will preserve funding for Truman, and potentially other programs, that don't make it into the upcoming budget request. The rollout of the Pentagon's formal spending request for the 2020 Fiscal Year, as part of the annual President's budget request, is set to occur until March 12, 2019

But we do know that all the specific details of the proposal, so far, have come from unnamed sources. We also know that subsequent comments from members of Congress and their staffers, both on and off the record, clearly indicate that they were blindsided by the idea that Truman's early retirement was even a possibility. All of this calls into question how concrete the plan is or was, if it exists in a formal, non-pre-decisional form at all.

If it does end up in the Navy's final budget proposal, no matter the original intentions, it seems most likely that the result will be for it to “shake the tree” and see what money falls down given how unlikely it is for the plan to survive the already growing outcry on Capitol Hill.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com