Carrier Refueling Decision Will Have Long-Term Effects


The U.S. decision on whether to refuel or decommission the aircraft carrier CVN-73 USS George Washington promises to leave a mark on the fleet size, the U.S. Navy’s aircraft needs and the nation’s overall combat ship force.

If the Pentagon and Congress decide to decommission the ship, the nation will be forced to decide on an issue lawmakers have managed to avoid confronting for some time: whether to cut the carrier fleet size and reduce U.S. global maritime presence and force. Not only will that mean a reduction of the carrier fleet, but the loss of the air wing as well, although it apparently will not affect needs for the F-35 in the near term.

If the nation keeps the carrier and funds the refueling, then the Navy, Pentagon and Congress will have to come up with the money, meaning a possible loss for other ship accounts or related procurement.

“FY16 is the crossroads,” says Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations. “You have the defuel route or the refuel route. In the [fiscal 20]16 budget, the Department will have to make that determination.”

Decommissioning the Washington would cut the carrier force to 10. The Navy is now required to keep a fleet of 11.

The Navy simply could not afford to fund Washington’s refueling in the future years defense program, Greenert told reporters March 10.

The service will need about $7 billion during fiscal 2016-18, he says. To complicate matters, the next carrier, the CVN-74 USS John C. Stennis, is due in for its overhaul and refueling in 2020. If the Washington was refueled, it would rejoin the fleet and deploy in 2022.

About that time, the Navy also plans to start replacing its SSBN nuclear-missile submarine fleet, which will be costly.

“A lot of things come to roost in the early 2020s,” Greenert says, adding that money for overhauls will be hard to find and could affect other procurement funds.

For Congress, the Navy’s message seems clear: “The action you take on our budget submission will determine our action,” Greenert says.

Speaking Feb. 27 during a conference call with investment analysts, Michael Petters, CEO of carrier builder Huntington Ingalls Industries, said, “This is really a debate about how big is the Navy going to be. You’ll see all the opinions come out in the blogs. You’ll see lots of viewpoints on how many carriers we need and where they need to be. There will be some discussion about industrial-base impact, but I don’t expect the industrial base to be the driving force in the decision around how many carriers we have. The real issue around CVN-73 is going to be the much broader strategic issue of how does the nation decide how big a Navy it wants?”

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