The leaders of the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee opposed a purported Navy plan to sideline the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) by canceling its mid-life refueling in the upcoming FY ’20 defense budget request.

House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee Chairman Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) underscored in an email response to Defense Daily that the FY ’17 defense authorization act “made clear in law that the Navy must maintain no less than 11 operational aircraft carriers. The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment stated that the Navy requires 12 operational carriers. The USS Harry S. Truman only entered service in 1998 – in ‘carrier dog years’ it’s just a puppy.”

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

“If the Department of Defense does ultimately propose in this year’s budget to reduce our carrier fleet by not refueling the USS Truman, the Seapower subcommittee will want to hear directly from the Navy why they believe we can shrink the fleet below statutory and strategic requirements,” Courtney added.

Courtney’s comments come after several reports that the Navy plans to cut the mid-life Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) of CVN-75, originally planned for 2024, to save billions of dollars.

The plan to cancel CVN-75’s RCOH was first alluded to by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius earlier this week in a profile of Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Ignatius said Shanahan only approved the recent two-carrier buy in exchange for cutting the midlife maintenance of a carrier (without identifying it) to save upwards of $4 billion.

Breaking Defense later reported the Ignatius column was referring to the Truman.

In January the Navy awarded sole carrier shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] a $15 billion contract to buy two Gerald R. Ford-class carriers at once, the future USS Enterprise (CVN-80) and the unnamed CVN-81 (Defense Daily, Jan. 31). The Navy said this is expected to save the service $4 billion over procuring them separately, eventually costing a total of $24 billion (Defense Daily, Feb. 1).

Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly told reporters last month after justifying such expensive carriers by saving $4 billion to buy them at once, the Navy has started to examine what the next carriers look like (Defense Daily, Feb. 14).

Modly said the service is examining questions like if the next carriers will be as advanced as the Ford-class, if it will buy two smaller carriers next, “or maybe shift air power to other forms of delivery. And we don’t know the answers of that bit we’re looking at this.”

Canceling the overhaul of CVN-75 would lead to it eventually being taken out of service about two decades early and shrinking the carrier force from 11 to 10 in the mid-2020s, even though the last Navy Force Structure Assessment (FSA) called for boosting the carrier force up to 12 (Defense Daily, Dec. 16, 2016).

Last September, Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), said the Navy expects to release a new FSA some time in 2019. He added an early interim report would help inform the FY ’20 Navy budget request cycle (Defense Daily, Sept. 6, 2018).

The FY 2019 30-year shipbuilding plan also showed preferences for reaching 12 carriers beyond 2060 while building them every four years, becoming the last ship in its class to reach the future Navy size goal in a 355-ship fleet (Defense Daily, Feb. 14, 2018)

The HASC Seapower subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) was also skeptical of Truman proposal.

“Our aircraft carrier is the nation’s preeminent power projection platform.  Keeping Refueling and Complex Overhauls (RCOH) on schedule and advanced procurement funded properly is critical to meeting combatant commander’s demand for carrier strike groups.”

“We have made a significant investment in these ships, and I am perplexed why anyone would consider taking the cornerstone of the United States Naval Force and allowing it to atrophy. If this is indeed included in the president’s FY ’20 budget, it will be at the center of the NDAA and appropriations conversation,” he continued.

The USS George Washington (CVN-73) arrives at HII’s Newport News Shipbulding Aug. 4 for its mid-life refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH). Photo: John Whalen/HII.

Wittman argued the block buy of CVN-80 and 81 can largely pay for the RCOH of the Truman. He said canceling the RCOH is estimated to save the Navy $5 billion but noted the two-carrier buy saved about $4 billion.

“I believe it is fair to argue that the two-carrier block buy actually pays for a bulk of the refuel.”

If the Navy cancels the RCOH of the Truman, eventually forcing it to retire decades before its expected service life, rather than pushing towards 12 carriers as the Navy’s stated goals, “a plan to cancel the mid-life overhaul and retire an aircraft carrier would cause the carrier fleet to shrink in size from 11 to 10,” Wittman added.

“We have seen similar provisions in the past fail, and I believe that retiring the USS Truman before its RCOH would be strategically and fiscally irresponsible.”

Indeed, in 2014 the Navy argued assuming sequestration and the Budget Control Act remained active it could not afford to conduct the RCOH of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) and would have to instead defuel and inactivate the carrier (Defense Daily, March 31, 2014).

At the time, Navy officials said it would cost, using 2014 dollars, an extra $7 billion across the Future Years Defense program (FYDP) from FY 2015-2019 to execute the RCOH and keep the carrier in the fleet.

The George Washington budget negotiations revealed it would cost $2.4 billion at the time to bring CVN-73 from its homeport to the HII shipyard in Virginia, then defuel and inactivate it. In comparison, refueling and retaining the Washington was estimated to cost over $5 billion, not including costs of maintaining the air wing and manning the ship.

Eventually the Navy’s 2016 budget request asked for funds for the RCOH of CVN-73 (Defense Daily, Feb. 2, 2015). Then, in 2017, HII won a $2.8 billion contract to execute RCOH on the carrier (Defense Daily, Sept. 5, 2017)

Earlier this week, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) agreed retiring the Truman does not make sense to him and does not think Congress is likely to get on board with that plan.

“I’m not sure it makes much sense, right? It depends on how you’re going to use – it’s $4 billion in savings…so the idea is to use that to purchase a $14 billion Ford-class carrier? I don’t know. I think if you’re trying to play moneyball going forward, it would make more sense to extend the Truman or use that money for amphibs or well you can do just – light carrier investments,” Gallagher said at an American Enterprise Institute event on Feb. 28.

“So, I think the Navy needs to be asked some hard questions on that. I suspect they’re using it as a bargaining chip but that’s a dangerous road to go down because the chairman of the armed services committee could just say ok, alright, well we’ll take you up on that. I’ll just confess, it doesn’t make much strategic sense to me from what I’ve read right now,” he added.