To Grow the Fleet, the U.S. Navy Could Recommission Retired Warships
But preserving newer ships could be a better option
In its desperation to grow the fleet, the U.S. Navy is considering pulling old, decommissioned vessels from “mothballs” — the inactive reserve fleet that the Navy maintains at ports on both U.S. coasts.
But reactivating old ships might prove less viable than keeping newer ships longer.
In early June, 2017, Vice Adm. Thomas Moore — head of NAVSEA, the Navy’s shipbuilding office — told the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, logistics ships and the old aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk are all candidates for reactivation as the Navy looks to grow from today’s 277 front-line ships to as many as 355 by the 2020s or 2030s.
The Trump administration has backed the plan. Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary under former president Barack Obama, also endorsed a 350-ship fleet as one of his last acts before leaving office in January 2017. “The fleet must be larger and more powerful,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, wrote in a May 2017 strategy document.
But the Congressional Budget Office has warned that building scores more ships could cost the Navy as much as $27 billion a year, roughly double what the Navy typically annually spends on new vessels.
Balking at the high cost, the Trump administration declined to add any extra ships to its budget proposal for 2018, instead asking for just eight vessels — the same number Obama had proposed in his own plan to modestly expand the fleet, to 308 ships. Defense Secretary James Mattis promised that a military expansion would begin in 2019.
Frigate USS De Wert in 2011. U.S. Navy photo
Recommissioning old ships could help to grow the fleet faster as the Navy works longer-term to boost the construction rate of new vessels. But Moore and Richardson urged caution. “We’re taking a hard look at the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates,” Richardson told an audience at the Naval War College in mid-June 2017.
The last frigate left the fleet in 2015. “There’s seven or eight of those that we could take a look at but those are some old ships and everything on these ships is old,” Richardson said. “A lot has changed since we last modernized those.”
Bringing back Kitty Hawk would be even more problematic. The Navy decommissioned the conventionally-powered Kitty Hawk — its last non-nuclear carrier — in 2009 after 48 years of service. “The carriers are pretty old,” Moore admitted, “so I think there’s limited opportunity in the inactive fleet to bring those back but we’re going to go look at that ship by ship and put that into the mix.”
Moore rejected the notion of recommissioning Ticonderoga-class cruisers, five of which the Navy decommissioned in the early 2000s. “Most of those ships are obsolete and they’ve kind of been spare parts lockers for the last couple years.”
This is not the first time the Navy has mulled dipping into the inactive fleet in order to grow the active fleet. In the naval buildup of the 1980s, the Navy recommissioned four Iowa-class battleships that had previously served during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Modernized and rearmed at a cost of billions of dollars, the battleships served for just a few years before leaving the service again — and for the final time — in the early 1990s.
For the present build-up, modifications to existing ships — to allow them to serve longer than originally planned — could prove more attractive to the Navy than pulling old ships out of mothballs. Richardson said that extending the lives of the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — the service has 62 Burkes and could build scores more — might be the best way to quickly expand the fleet, by immediately reducing the rate at which older ships decommission.
The Burkes were built to last 30 years. The Navy has claimed that, with careful maintenance, it could add at least a decade to the destroyers’ useful lives. “If we plan now, for instance, to extend the life Arleigh Burke [destroyers] beyond the current projections, the initial returns are we could buy 10 to 15 years to the left in terms of reaching that 350-ship goal,” Richardson said.
But it’s not clear the Navy can keep up with the additional maintenance that scores of nearly 40-year-old Burkes would require. The service already has a hard time caring for a smaller number of much younger vessels. “Today, despite hiring 16,500 new workers since 2012, naval shipyards are more than 2,000 people short of the capacity required to execute the projected workload,” Moore told Congress in March 2017.