Navy officials told the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee on Tuesday that looking at the future forces led to “tough choices” like cutting the refueling of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75).

Under questioning from subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), acquisition chief James Geurts said the decision came after the Navy went “all in” on the Gerald R. Ford-class carrier and the recent two-carrier buy.

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

“Then we looked at how are we going to provide, what are our options to provide fires and compete at that kind of future conflict which led to some tough choices. One of those was to retire that ship early in favor of looking at other technologies, other larger cost imposing strategies, as we looked at the competitive landscape,” Geurts said.

Geurts admitted it was tough decision, but the Navy tried to make it early enough so “we could have a robust discussion about it given the weight of that decision.”

The Navy previously said it expects this to save about $3.4 billion within the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) plus an additional $2 billion in procurement outside the FYDP and $1 billion per year in operations and maintenance (Defense Daily, March 12).

Geurts reiterated the decision does not have a large budget effect in the FY 2020 budget, “but it does impact the out-year budgets where we’re looking to transform the Navy and integrate some of the newer capabilities into the Navy of the future.”

Earlier this month Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said canceling the Truman is about balancing the capabilities of another 25 years using CVN-75 against developing and using new technologies being studied, like unmanned vessels (Defense Daily, March 12).

Vice Adm. William Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems (N9), told the subcommittee that canceling Truman “was not a warfighting decision, it was more a investment decision. We know, the signals are clear, we have to move on to alternative investments, distributed lethality, cost-imposing measures.”

Merz noted the effect of canceling the Truman refueling and its eventual retirement would only be felt in the 2027 – 2029 timeframe, when it would have left the shipyard. If no other actions are taken between now and then, Merz admitted, “it will affect the force generation model” for carriers.

However, “the way we have structured this, the investments we are going after, we will continue to study it, we will continue to experiment with it. We elected to make this bold decision early, every year counts. We could have waited, we decided that we didn’t want to lose that year to figure out which direction we want to go in these alternate investments.”

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) reacted strongly, saying she is “really baffled at how the Navy could submit a budget that decommissions the Harry S. Truman halfway through their lifecycle and moreover the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan from 2025 on has no more than 10 operational carriers and sometimes it only has nine.”

“It seem as though you’re coming before Congress and this could be some sort of shell game where you request to not to fund the Truman but you’re looking for unmanned surface vessels.” Luria added.

Earlier in the day during a hearing before the full committee, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said, “I think it’s a strategic choice we needed to make. I believe that this was a difficult choice, we spent a year making this decision.”

Shanahan said carriers are and will remain “vital” and  noted carriers will not draw down in capacity until the mid-2020s “so it’s not like that is an irreversible decision.”

Shanahan also reiterated the consistent line that “we took the savings to invest in the future force.”

At the same hearing Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted the reduction in carriers foreseen in the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan will make it hard to maintain current stationing.

In the full committee, Wittman asked if nine carriers, the lowest point of the 30-year plan, allows the U.S. to generate two continuously on station and three in a surge.

“Congressman, it would be difficult to do that,” Dunford said.