The Chief of Naval Operations on Wednesday said the service is canceling the refueling of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) to focus on new technologies, even while the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Seapower subcommittee reiterated their strong opposition to the move.

Speaking at the McAleese annual budget conference, Adm. John Richardson said the high-level message of the FY ’20 Navy budget request is both a focus on great power competition and moving forward with emerging technologies like conventional prompt strike, hypersonic weapons, directed energy, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, and machine learning.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) transits the Atlantic Ocean in September 2018. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Richardson underscored canceling the mid-life Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) of CVN-75 does not change the service’s views about the importance of carriers. CVN-75’s RCOH was set to start in FY ’24 but canceling it would lead to the Navy retiring the carrier in the late 2020s.

“As the two-carrier buy signals, the aircraft carrier is going to be an important part of that future as well. So this is not about the survivability, the vulnerability of the aircraft carrier. The Gerald R Ford-class carrier is going to be a lot more capable than the Nimitz-class carrier,” he said.

Richardson told reporters he disagreed with the original notion in a Washington Post column two weeks ago that Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan cancelled the RCOH in exchange for approving the two-carrier buy of CVN-80 and 81 (Defense Daily, March 1).

“I don’t think that they’re connected. The two-carrier buy is I think a statement about the effectiveness of the aircraft carrier moving forward, particularly the new aircraft carrier. The decision on Truman is really connected to balancing capabilities, between 25 years of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier against the requirements which are being studied and then also this idea that we do want to make sure we’re not missing opportunities to exploit technology.”

The CNO did not comment directly on if the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) forced this decision, but he said, “There are always really robust discussions between the services, OSD, amongst all of us, to make sure that we are taking the most thoughtful approach towards providing America’s security and the best solution will always come from a discussion where people have different points of view.”

“We bring them together, we resolve those points of view, and I just don’t want to overdramatize that process that happens as a matter of having every single year,” Richardson added.

Also speaking at the conference, ranking member of the HASC Seapower subcommittee Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said while it is great the Navy is buying CVN-80 and 81 in one buy “the problem is that if you get rid of Truman early, you’re taking a very valuable asset out of Navy inventory. You’re now dropping that number [of carriers] from 11 down to 10 and it takes you years and years and years to actually get up to 12.”

The Navy’s last Force Structure Assessment (FSA) called for the future force of 355 ships to reach 12 carriers and congressional armed services committee leaders have supported those numbers.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson, the 31st CNO. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Wittman argued “that it is not wise” to cancel RCOH funds for CVN-75 and noted Congress and the Navy previously went through a back and forth round earlier in the decade to cancel the RCOH of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) (Defense Daily, March 31, 2014). Eventually, the money came back for the RCOH and the FY ’16 budget request asked for RCOH funds again (Defense Daily, Feb. 2, 2015)

Wittman also asked “if you lost a carrier out of that strike group element, the question is how do you use those other ships in a complementary way to do the things that we need to do to project power around the world?”

His verdict is that canceling RCOH for CVN-75 “is not a good thing.”

HASC Seapower Chairman Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) agreed, saying the plan “just doesn’t make any kind of business sense to me.”

Courtney noted the Navy has already bought two nuclear reactors for the RCOH “and so you just kind of have to put those up on a shelf, and again take an asset out of use which, there’s clearly demand for it by combatant commanders in certain key regions around the world.”

Earlier this month, the HASC Seapower leaders earlier voiced their opposition upon first hearing about the plan (Defense Daily, March 1).

On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Randy Crites, Deputy Assistant Navy Secretary for Budget, confirmed the Navy previously spent $538 million on the RCOH reactor cores. He said “those will essentially be on the shelf as emergency replacement cores for the Nimitz program and until the life of all the ships are done.”

The cores would be available “in case we need some sort of emergent situation would arise.  That’s the plan,” Crites added.

In his address, the CNO indicated some flexibility on CVN-75 in the near future, even if Congress approves the RCOH cancellation this year. He said the Navy is finishing a new FSA this year while combatant commanders are doing their analyses of the security environment and updating their global campaign plans.

“That will all be done this year, and what this budget also entails is the flexibility to respond to what those studies tell us. And so – I guess I’ll just leave it at that. If we continue to see a need for more aircraft carriers, we have the flexibility to revisit that decision on the Truman,” Richardson said.

On Tuesday, Crites said if Congress does not allow the Navy to retire the Truman, “we would have to identify other sources to restore it. So I don’t want to get into a what if game, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”