Lawmakers on a congressional panel continued pushing back against Navy plans to retire seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers due to cost, including two vessels added to the plan this year, while officials explained the cost balancing and maintenance issues.

House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces Chairman Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) asked what the Navy’s thinking was on decommissioning these ships and how to make up for the loss of Vertical Launching System (VLS) missile tubes on the ships during a June 17 hearing.

“Short answer: we’re not creating a gap for the function of the air missile defense commander. We have looked at that and mapped it out and will continue to pace arrival of [Arleigh Burke-class Flight III destroyers], which will assume that responsibility for our strike groups because of the capabilities it brings,” Vice Admiral James Kilby, deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities (OPNAV N9), replied.

An Mk 41 VLS launches an SM-6 off the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

He added that, “to me, it’s more than just VLS cells, it’s what is the sensor that a ship brings, what are the capabilities of that combat system, and what’s the confidence in reliability we have in that hull to get underway.”

Kilby illustrated the service’s perspective on cruisers by noting his experience in 2017, as a strike group commander for the Carl Vinson carrier strike group. At the time, his air and missile defense command ship was the USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) but it missed about one-third of its deployment due to maintenance issues.

“Not because her radar was down, not because her combat system wasn’t capable, not because she didn’t have a full magazine. But she had tank top cracking that required her to get that fixed and be safely underway,” Kilby said.

He also noted the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) missed a month of its previous deployment and has already missed two and a half months of its current deployment.

“So all of that, in my mind, has to go into the mix when we factor the availability and reliability of those ships. Those missile tubes will only count if they’re underway alongside the carrier.”

The Navy’s FY ‘22 budget request plans to decommission the USS Hue City (CG-66) and USS Anzio (CG-68), noting cruiser modernization costs have grown 200 percent more than initial programming efforts. These two cruiser retirements aim to save $369 million through divestment (Defense Daily, May 28).

Kilby added while he does not want to dismiss the value of an Aegis cruiser that features 122 missile cells, “but our average age of our cruisers is 32 years. They were built for 30 years. Four of our ships are over 34 years. So I’m really trying to look at the most valuable ship that we can fund, the most valuable program within our budget to make our force equal across all functions – air, surface and subsurface, to align to threats as we see them.”

Courtney asked what the cost would be if Congress decided to retain the cruisers and stop the decommissioning.

“If we were to retain the seven cruisers that are in the budget to be decommissioned in ‘22, that’s five from the previous budget and Hue City and Anzio in this budget – it would be roughly $5 billion across the [five-year Future Years Defense Programs plan]. If we were to retain those ships for two years, all seven ships, that’s roughly $2.78 billion. The cost to modernize Hue City and Anzio alone is $1.5 billion, approximately.”

Separately, subcommittee ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) also pressed on cruisers and their 122 VLS cells each. He and Kilby agreed if all seven cruisers and their VLS cells are decommissioned, that would account for about 910 VLS cells total.

In his opening statement, Wittman underscored the seven cruisers slated for retirement have more VLS capacity than the entire British Royal Navy.

Kilby admitted the cruisers account for a “large percentage” of the entire U.S. Navy surface fires force.

In contrast, Wittman asked how many Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSVs), which the Navy plans to eventually feature VLS cells, would it take to replace that strike capability.

“I would say at a rough estimate, double the number of Large Unmanned Surface Vessels in our current instantiation because they are going to have 64 cells, so it would be double that seven.”

However, Kilby admitted the timeline to add those vessels and missile cells to the fleet is not determined yet because the Navy has to go through confidence building measures with LUSVs to field the capability, including land-based testing.

“So it won’t be in the timeline that these cruisers could serve,” Kilby said,

Wittman said he believes in the best case scenario that could take up to 15 years to get all the LUSVs deployed.

Kilby also elaborated that “a significant amount of money” has been invested in the cruisers over the past five years and it continues to cost more than the service originally thought it would.

“So initially it was $2.4 billion, but again we’re adding a lot of money to do that, sir.”

Last month, Commander of Naval Sea Systems Command Vice Adm. William Galinis outlined major challenges in the current round of cruiser modernization work. While the service has gotten better at modernization from one ship to the next, “we’re having our challenges with the first three ships that went in,” (Defense Daily, May 13).

Galinis said with the cruisers over 30 years old, the biggest problems are infrastructure, meaning hull and mechanical systems which has led to fuel leaks due to hulls flexing over a ship’s service life. ”So they are hands down probably our toughest class of ship to maintain,” he said.

Separately, when asked by Wittman, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Jay Stefany reiterated the Navy received a direction from DoD to not provide the full five-year FYDP this year and it would provide it in the FY ‘23 budget request, planned to be released around February 2022.

As for the annual 30-year shipbuilding plan, Stefany said the service plans to still provide that within days.

“My understanding is the final chops on it were yesterday and my hope would be tomorrow, maybe Monday at the latest you will get that plan, sir.”