Although President Donald Trump touted the idea of a 350 active ship Navy along the way to the White House, fiscal limitations coupled the government’s general inability to pass a defense budget has made that goal seem awfully unlikely – especially as some of the Navy’s largest, most powerful warships approach the end of their service life with no plans to refurbish or replace them on the horizon.
America’s fleet of 22 Ticonderoga class cruisers are expected to age out of service starting in just over two years, with the USS Mobile Bay and USS Bunker Hill both slated to be decommissioned in 2020. A total of 11 cruisers will be retired, with the other 11 receiving modernization upgrades intended to keep them operational into the 2030s. Although the U.S. Navy claims that they will be able to maintain between 98 and 100 large surface combatant ships throughout the decommissioning of the cruisers, those plans do come with a dramatic reduction in the fleet’s overall offensive and defensive firepower.
“I think the right idea is to put them into a [Service Life Extension Program] and keep them in the fleet,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Center for a New American Security. “It’s cheaper to do that than a new build.”
At around 60 feet longer than the newer Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyers, Ticonderoga class cruisers carry significantly more firepower than their destroyer counterparts, which comes in the form of vertical launch system (VLS) tubes that can be used to fire an array of guided missiles, including anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and the famed Tomahawk cruise missiles employed to engage targets on land.
“Furthermore you have 122 VLS tubes in there, and if you are replacing these with the [Arleigh Burke-class destroyers] you get a 25 percent decrease in the number of cells. We really need those tubes. We need the mass — we need the capacity.”
In total, replacing 11 cruisers with destroyers would result in 335 fewer reusable missile silos deployed in support of fleet operations. Although these silos have been more regularly employed in land engagements in recent years, a shift in the geopolitical climate has dictated a resurgence in the need for sentry vessels to protect capital ships like America’s new super carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. The Defense Department’s focus on ground warfare in the years following the September 11th terrorist attacks that launched the War on Terror shifted focus away from the need to defend our Navy from near-peer level competitors, which resulted in a true replacement for the Ticonderoga class ships never coming to fruition.
An inability to get consistent funding, as well as the Budget Control Act of 2011, commonly known as the sequestration, limited the Navy’s ability to properly follow through on either the Surface Combatant for the 21st Century program or the CG(X) program, each of which were intended to field a cruiser replacement.
It is a sign of the Navy’s budget problem,” Bryan McGrath, an analyst and consultant who runs The FerryBridge Group, said. “In order to put forward a balanced program of modernization, maintenance, acquisition, personnel and everything else the Navy has to pay for: It’s not skin; it’s not fat; it’s not muscle; they’re cutting into bone now.”
Of course, it is possible that the U.S. Navy could launch a modernization program that could feasibly keep all 22 cruisers in operation into the 2030s, when a replacement could hopefully be on its way, but doing so would require not only funding, but a consistent and predictable level of it. The Navy’s current plan to ensure they maintain overall combatant ship numbers without addressing the reduction in firepower is truly born out of necessity, as they attempt to balance budget woes against the expectations placed on them from lawmakers and the challenges they face at sea.
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