Carrier Fleet Still Vulnerable to Sequestration

Flight deck of the USS George Washington.

The size of the Navy's aircraft carrier fleet remains dependent on whether Congress repeals sequestration even though the Pentagon found a way to maintain plans to keep the $6 billion refueling of the USS George Washington on track.

Navy leaders said the service can only afford to refuel the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier by 2016 and maintain an 11 carrier Navy if Congress can pass legislation to repeal sequestration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel estimated that it would cost $6 billion to refuel the George Washington.

"Are we going back down to sequester levels or not? If we go back to sequester levels, the aircraft carrier takes two to three years to plan and four years to execute. If we are going to refuel that ship, it also needs to operate for 25 more years," said Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Integration of Capabilities and Resources.

Pentagon leaders have again placed the future of its aircraft carriers at the forefront of discussing future Congressional budget decisions. Unless Congress makes legislative changes, sequestration is slated to return in fiscal year 2016. The current bipartisan Congressionally-passed budget deal only covers 2014 and 2015.

Navy and Pentagon officials know the carrier fleet touches many Congressional districts and plenty of high powered defense companies. The carrier fleet's health is a common discussion point brought up by military officials and lawmakers alike during budgetary hearings.

Even before Hagel announced the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 budget proposal on Monday, the White House made clear the Navy must find funding to keep the George Washington in the fleet to maintain 11 carriers in the fleet.

However, the George Washington's future is not assured until 2016. The Pentagon claims that if sequestration remains in place for 2016 than the George Washington will have to be retired. Pentagon leaders claim the budget is too tight for them to again manipulate other portions of their budget to find the necessary funding.   The defense secretary announced Monday that keeping the eleventh carrier will mean the Navy will lay up 11 of its 22 cruisers in 2015.

"Half of the Navy's cruiser fleet, or 11 ships,  will be laid up and placed in reduced operating status while they are modernized and eventually returned to service with greater capability and a longer life span," he said.

In order to deal with the latest move to keep the George Washington's mid-life refueling and overhaul plans on track, Mulloy said the Navy will have to be innovative with how it manages its fleet of 22 cruisers, by keeping half of them in a reduced status for a period of time in order to save money.

"Eleven of them (cruisers) costs about $1 billion per year to operate and maintain. We are looking at this in an innovative way. When you are running out of dollars you have to think, can I put them in a reduces status and then modernize them to the latest modernization later – and then keep an effective ship life of 50-years that will go out to the 2040s?" he asked.

Aircraft carriers typically serve for as long as 50 years, with 25 of those years after the mid-life refueling. The Refueling Complex and Overhaul, or RCOH, is a massive mid-life technological boost and refurbishment for the ship, to include work on the hull, flight-deck, arresting gear, catapults and a rebuilding of the island house on the vessel.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at

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