Manvel: The threat to our carriers

By Talbot Manvel

The Obama administration is playing a risky game of “gold-watching” the refueling of the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington.

“Gold-watching” is budget-speak for cutting the funds of an asset so valuable – a gold watch, for example – that higher authority will reject that cut and keep funding for that valuable asset. In the case of a naval asset, higher authority is Congress, which is constitutionally empowered to “support and maintain a Navy.”

In his Feb. 24 press conference presenting the Defense Department’s recommended budget for 2015, Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that unless Congress raises the spending level imposed by sequestration, the department will not be able to pay for the refueling of the George Washington in 2016.

The carrier’s scheduled refueling at Huntington-Ingalls Inc.’s shipyard at Newport News is supposed to include a new core of nuclear fuel along with upgrades and repairs – a complex, $4.7 billion overhaul that will enable it to steam another 25 years.

Cutting the carrier force by not refueling the GW is a bad idea. We have only 10 aircraft carriers now, though the law requires 11.

We had 11 – 10 Nimitz-class carriers and the Enterprise until it was retired last year. Its replacement, the new carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, won’t be delivered to the fleet until at least 2016.

Why do we need 11? Since World War II, the Navy has routinely deployed three carriers simultaneously to provide a powerful presence in areas of potential conflict. If conflicts arise, the Navy can usually muster three more carriers from those recently back from deployment, and/or from the three working up to deploy. We surged six for Desert Storm in 1991, four for Enduring Freedom in 2001 and six for Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

So to deploy at least three at the same time all the time, plus send three more forward to surge six to the conflict, you need at least 11 operational carriers. The remaining three operational, deployable carriers can continue with training or repairs stateside while preparing to take their turn forward. The 10th carrier can be on the blocks for an extended time in a scheduled dry-docking repair, while the 11th can be out of service in a scheduled multi-year midlife refueling.

We already miss that 11th carrier. Our carriers are at the highest operational tempo since WWII. The Nimitz recently returned from a 10-month deployment because another carrier with mechanical problems could not make its deployment on time.

Ten months is a long time for sailors to be away from their loved ones. Some will leave the Navy despite the poor economy. When the economy improves, they will leave in droves. As deployments lengthen, so will the list of needed repairs, although the time to repair carriers shrinks as we continue to send three out at a time.

The Navy has never mothballed a nuclear-powered warship, much less a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Reserve Fleet is not the proper place to store a nuclear power plant. If the carrier isn’t refueled, the radioactive nuclear components of its power plant should be safely removed, gutting the ship. The estimate for doing that is at least $1 billion.

Moreover, if the GW’s refueling is canceled and the prospect for the next refueling is at least four years away, that highly skilled workforce will be laid off, and the ability to refuel the next nuclear carrier efficiently will significantly decrease, making that next refueling more expensive. That threatens the remaining four Nimitz class refuelings, as well, and could cause the loss of 125 years of available service life of the Nimitz class.

We are already below minimum, and the world is full of turmoil. National defense is the first priority of the federal government. The military is the last place the executive branch and Congress should play chicken with the sequestration law.

Not refueling the GW will reduce the carrier force to nine and will accelerate a spiral of decline that invites further reductions. That will make us weaker, invite mischief from our adversaries and make the world less safe.

Refuel the George Washington.

Talbot Manvel, a retired captain, served on three aircraft carriers, the last as chief engineer of the carrier America in Desert Storm. He now teaches naval architecture at the U.S. Naval Academy. His opinions are his own and not those of the Naval Academy or the Navy.

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