Mothball the USS Harry S. Truman? Proposal has many scratching their heads.

By Hugh Lessig

Two years ago, President Trump made a dramatic entrance at Newport News Shipbuilding and promised to expand the aircraft carrier fleet. It was his biggest applause line.

That promise appeared to bear fruit in January, when the shipyard signed a two-carrier contract with the Navy. It was the first bulk-buy of the nuclear-powered behemoths since the Reagan administration.

Now, the Pentagon’s latest proposal has local leaders scratching their heads. The Pentagon wants to mothball the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman halfway through its intended 50-year service life.

“It’s just very short-sighted what the president’s budget wants to do,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, who pushed for the two-carrier purchase.

Navy leaders still plan to expand the fleet. Currently at 289 ships, they expect to reach 314 in about five years. The long-range goal is 355 ships, although the mix of vessels is still open to debate.

But they can save at least $3.4 billion by skipping the Truman’s mid-life overhaul, a massive upgrade scheduled to begin in 2024. Cancelling the overhaul — something that’s never been done before — would result in the ship being retired early since its nuclear fuel would run out and not be replenished.

Making the proposal was “a very difficult decision,” said Rear Adm. Randy Crites, but it would allow the Navy to invest in next-generation war-fighting tools. That includes investment in a pair of unmanned surface ships about the size of small Coast Guard cutters.

That trade-off doesn’t hold water with Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia Beach. The former Navy commander, along with Wittman, sits on the influential sea power subcommittee of the House Armed Services, which will hear from Navy leaders next week.

“If something breaks out in the world,” Luria said, “I don’t think the president turns to the secretary of defense and says, ‘Where are my unmanned surface vessels?’ He says, ‘Where are my aircraft carriers?’”

Craig Quigley is the executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance. Like others, he was caught by surprise by the Pentagon’s proposal to skip the overhaul, formally known as a Refueling and Complex Overhaul, or RCOH.

“I just don’t understand the logic, unless it’s cost avoidance,” he said. “If that trumped everything else, well then I guess I at least understand the proposal. I just don’t think it’s a strategically smart decision.”

The Navy won’t save much money in the short term by skipping the RCOH, said Bryan Clark, a retired naval officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“I don’t think it’s a good trade-off,” he said. “The technology the Navy is trying to buy now isn’t helped by the canceling of the Truman (overhaul.)

Another argument against the move focuses on taxpayer investment. The Truman was built to last 50 years but would only serve half that.

“They will save $3.4 billion, but will lose the investment of 25 years,” said Vinod Agarwal, an economist at Old Dominion University. “It simply does not make economic sense.”

Local fallout

The Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole designer and builder of nuclear-powered carriers for the Navy. It’s also the only shipyard capable of handling the RCOH.

Lasting several years, the overhaul results in a completely refurbished ship and provides business for thousands of suppliers across the country.

RCOH schedules are tightly coordinated. As one ship leaves, another is supposed to arrive. Skipping an RCOH creates problems at the shipyard, which is Virginia’s largest industrial employer.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he does not expect employment to suffer because the two-carrier contract would compensate for the loss.

“Part of the calculus here was to maintain employment. In fact, with (this) decision, we grow employment in the industrial base,” he told a Senate panel last week. “We want to make sure that not only the shipyards maintain their employment, there’s actually growth, but also (growth in) the supply chain.”

HII spokeswoman Beci Brenton did not specifically address employment, but said the RCOH cancellation would be felt well beyond the shipyard and the aircraft carrier program.

Saving money by skipping the job comes with a cost.

“It will decrease what we buy and order from our base of 680 vendors in 40 states and will drive costs significantly higher on several Navy shipbuilding and maintenance programs,” she said in an email.

Political blockade

Key lawmakers from both parties have lined up against the proposal. The Navy shipbuilding budget will get a full airing next week in hearings before sea power panels in both the House and Senate armed services committees.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who chairs the House sea power panel, has already signaled his skepticism, along with Wittman and Luria, who is the vice chairman.

“I think I’m not going to be moved by the prospect of unknown, untested technologies and unmanned surface vehicles,” Luria said. “It’s kind of backwards to say we’re going to build the thing, then figure out what to do with it.”

Hampton Roads has been down this road before.

In 2013-14, Congress considered early retirement of the USS George Washington instead of going through with its RCOH. At the time, the Navy was dealing with across-the-board budget cuts, but Congress opposed the move and the Obama White House eventually put in the extra money.

Aircraft carriers make tempting targets for budget-cutters. The newest, the USS Gerald R. Ford, costs about $12.9 billion.

“If you’re looking for real money to get to some of these other mission areas, I’m not going to get there by trimming around the edges,” Quigley said. “I’ve got to go where the money is.”

An ongoing debate?

Even if the Truman proposal is scuttled, expect Congress to debate the future of aircraft carriers for years to come, with multiple factors driving the discussions.

The U.S. already has far more carriers than any other country. And military experts have questioned their vulnerability and continuing effectiveness.

China is developing long-range weapons that could force carriers to stay farther offshore, making it more difficult for their fighter jets to reach their targets. Clark, the naval analyst, sees the Truman debate as a strategic move driven largely by Pentagon leaders focused on such things.

“As long as there are questions among leaders in (the Pentagon) about the viability of the carrier air wing, this will be an issue,” he said.

Quigley said he doesn’t underestimate what China is developing, but carrier defenses have evolved, too.

“Such is the nature of naval warfare,” he said.

Luria echoed that sentiment.

“We shouldn’t look at a carrier as being uniquely vulnerable,” she said. “It’s really the most survivable airfield in the world.”

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