Navy Speeds Up Ship Retirements as It Ramps Up Investment in New Platforms

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The dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island.
The dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island. (U.S. Navy)

The Navy is on a mission to transform the fleet with innovative new ship platforms -- and it's forging ahead with plans to retire old ships to support that effort.

The service's $163.87 billion fiscal 2022 budget request, narrowly up from $162.9 billion last year, includes funding for a smaller fleet of 346,200 sailors, down 1,600 from last year's end strength. A Defense Department budget summary notes that the smaller force is due in part to the Navy's decommissioning plans, particularly the 2021 retirement of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard following a devastating fire.

"These reductions are partially offset by new construction crews on various platforms including Virginia-class submarines and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers," it notes.

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While the Navy's most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, released last December, included plans to decommission 48 active ships by 2026, the new budget request speeds up the retirement date for several platforms. Two Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the Hue City and the Anzio, were merely slated to be placed in reserve in 2022, alongside four other ships. The new plan would decommission them next year, for a savings of $369.1 million.

An amphibious ship has also been fast-tracked for the retired list: The dock landing ship Whidbey Island, previously slated to be placed in reserve next year, is now headed for retirement. In Navy budget documents, officials said this move saves money in order to invest in future Light Amphibious Warships, a key feature of the Marine Corps' future fighting strategy. The Navy plans to save $200.3 million by retiring the Whidbey Island.

The Navy also reaffirmed plans to complete the retirement of its first four littoral combat ships, which began last year with the decommissioning of the first two. These ships, already sidelined for testing and experimentation, are simply not up to the task of deploying with the capabilities built into more recent LCSs.

"Decommissioning LCSs 3 and 4, primarily test platforms, avoids the cost to upgrade these ships to the common configuration and capability with the rest of the fleet," officials said in budget documents. The retirement will save $186.1 million, to be invested in the Constellation-class frigate, a better-built, more survivable successor to the LCS.

Some 12 MK VI coastal riverine patrol boats are also on the chopping block, a major shift in capability for the Navy.

"The final deployment for the affected coastal riverine companies is scheduled to be complete by approximately the end of 2021," officials said in budget documents, adding that other Navy platforms and Coast Guard boats would fill the mission gap for river patrol, escort and maritime force protection missions. Savings for dispatching the boats will total $74 million.

Beyond ships, the Navy plans to speed up the retirement of its classic F/A-18 Hornets, retiring the last 55 aircraft in fiscal 2022 rather than 2024 as initially expected. These fighters, now used by Navy Reserve units, will eventually be replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets the active force uses. In the meantime, officials said, the Navy will receive an undisclosed number of Air Force Fighting Falcons to fill the gap. The service expects to save $95.2 million in long-term support costs through this acceleration.

All these savings will be reinvested into the Navy's strategy to build its future fleet. By the end of fiscal 2022, the service plans to return to a fleet of 296 battle force ships, after dropping to 294 this year amid decommissionings. The Navy's shipbuilding procurement budget will dip 3%, from $23.3 billion this year to $22.6 billion. But it's buying a total of eight ships, down from last year's 10, and strategically funding development efforts for future platforms.

The procurement request includes full funds for a second frigate, and partial funding for two amphibious ships, an America-class landing helicopter amphibious assault ship, or LHA, and an amphibious transport dock, or LPD flight II, to replace the Whidbey Island.

A full $2.4 billion is slated for Navy research and development, up from roughly $2 billion in 2021. That includes investment in emerging classes of ships, such as the Ford-class carrier, the frigate and the Columbia-class submarine. But it also includes conceptual and early-development platforms. The request includes $98 million for design and development of a future attack submarine (SSN(X)), intended to be faster and stealthier than its predecessor Virginia class. It also spends $121.8 million to keep developing a next-generation large surface combatant (DDG(X)), the planned replacement for the Navy's workhorse Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

An additional $27.8 million is slated for development of a next-generation logistics ship or NGLS, resupply and refueling vessel that would support distributed Marine Corps operations.

Another $365.6 million is allotted to drone ships, including the medium and large unmanned surface vessels, intended to speed up development of these assets, which play a key role in the Navy's future surface combatant strategy. Another $290 million is earmarked for unmanned undersea vessels.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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