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The Navy's seven-decade ships

You read here back in April about how the Navy's amphibious command ships, the USS Blue Ridge and the USS Mount Whitney, both were seeing lots of time at sea coordinating big air-sea-land operations. And how the ships weren't getting any younger. And how the Navy really doesn't have a plan for what it'll do next. Well now, the Navy does have a plan, as it were -- keep the Blue Ridge and Mount Whitney in service. For 70 years. That's the word from Christopher P. Cavas, who got hold of the Navy's latest shipbuilding plan.

Wrote Cavas:

The ships are at a stage in their service lives where the Navy normally might be expected to plan for replacements. But in a recent update to the 30-year shipbuilding plans, the ships have been extended to serve another 28 years - until 2039. That would mean the Blue Ridge, launched in January 1969, will have spent more than 70 years in the water. The Mount Whitney is one year younger.

A notional replacement ship, dubbed LCC(X) - or sometimes JCC(X), where the "J" stood for "Joint" - has faded in and out of several previous 30-year plans. The ships were always dropped for affordability reasons. The Navy then planned for the current ships to remain in service until 2029, and now has extended that deadline.

The 70-year planned service life might be a new record for an active Navy ship. Aircraft carriers are intended to serve for 50 years, and most surface combatants such as cruisers and destroyers are planned for 30-, 35- or 40-year lives.

That ol' cutup Cavas also can't resist cracking wise:
Only the sail frigate Constitution, a museum ship in Boston that was launched in 1797, has been in service longer, and she was never expected to last this long.
And the Constitution's "service" consists of getting rebuilt every few years, being boarded by tourist groups, and annoying its snooty neighbors with its daily cannon salute. Carriers, on the other hand, do give decades of backbreaking work, but they are essentially rebuilt at their 25 year midlife point and given fresh magic rocks for their reactors. The exception is the carrier USS Enterprise, which has been refueled and rebuilt several times and has served for about 50 years, depending on when you start the clock -- and which the Navy can't get out of the fleet quickly enough. The Enterprise is filled with antiquated 1950s-era equipment that its crew has "retired in place" aboard the ship.

But the Navy is in a bind: Its planned LCC(X) replacements, as Cavas wrote, have dropped off the radar and probably won't reappear in Austerity America. The Navy's one hope is that shipbuilding advocates in Congress will push to keep building San Antonio-class amphibious ships down along the Gulf Coast -- to take advantage of the "hot production line" -- and that everyone can agree that two of them would be modified to serve as future command ships. Navy planners also have mused about building smaller hospital ships based on the LPD 17 configuration, so that could be another opportunity to give the yards some work. (The two existing hospital ships, USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, aren't getting any younger either.)

Otherwise, the Navy could be forced to start breaking longevity records with the Mount Whitney and the Blue Ridge.

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