Until last week, the Navy was hard-pressed for money even to pay for the tow of the aircraft carrier Lincoln on the short haul from Norfolk to Newport News, much less begin the $2.6 billion overhaul the ship needs to rejoin the fleet.
“The funding is now in line,” for the Lincoln, but the complex overhaul involving switching out her nuclear fuel will make the ship unavailable for duty until 2015, said Lt. Dan Day, a spokesman for the Fleet Forces Command at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Station.
The Lincoln served as the prime example of the Navy’s problem in keeping the carriers at sea. The challenges the budget cuts pose in maintaining the Navy’s carrier fleet will garner attention when Navy leaders gather next week at the Sea Air Space 2013 symposium sponsored by the Navy League at National Harbor, Md.
The Navy had 11 nuclear carriers to meet the constant demand for forward presence until last December when the carrier Enterprise was de-activated after 51 years of service.
Until recently, the service has maintained a two-carrier presence in the Arabian Gulf. The past 12 years supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have worn down the ten remaining carriers.
Currently, the carriers Lincoln and Roosevelt are at the Huntington Ingalls-Newport News Shipyard for what the Navy calls RCOH -- Refueling and Complex Overhaul. The looming budget cuts from the Congressional sequestration process had forced the Navy to delay maintenance on the Lincoln.
The carriers Vinson and Reagan were in overhauls in San Diego, unavailable for deployment until 2014. The carrier Nimitz was in training exercises off the West Coast, as was the Bush in the Atlantic.
The Stennis was returning to homeport in Bremerton, Wash., after a lengthy deployment to the Arabian Gulf; the George Washington was at homeport in Yokusuka, Japan; and the Eisenhower was on station in the Arabian Gulf.
That left the Navy with the Truman, now in Norfolk, as the only carrier available to deploy to the Gulf or another crisis area immediately. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, made that point to Congress repeatedly in testimony in February.
Because of the cost-cutting demands of sequester “we will have only one additional or ‘surge’ CSG (Carrier Strike Group) certified for major combat operations in fiscal year 13 and throughout fiscal year 14, down from three on the average,” Greenert told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Navy has faced numerous challenges to acquire its newest carrier, the Gerald R. Ford. The estimated cost overrun for the CVN-78 is estimated to run over $1 billion. The original target price for the ship was $5.16 billion.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took aim at these cost overruns at the March 16 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The cost of acquisition of the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier has grown over the original estimate by over $1 billion. I repeat, has grown over cost by $1 billion,” McCain said.
Navy leaders have worked to lessen the costs on the carrier and lower the risks for similar cost overruns on the second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79). McCain said he’d restrict funding for the Kennedy until the Navy could provide it had learned from its mistakes on the Ford.
“I'm also reluctant to support additional funding for the second carrier, CVN-79, until the Navy and the shipbuilder get Ford Class carrier costs under control,” McCain said.
Long seen as a shining example of the U.S. military’s might, there are some critics who are questioning the carrier’s place in future conflicts. Retired Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix, an analyst for the Center for a New American Security, wrote a report in March that questioned the strategic place for the carrier when China is developing a new generation of anti-ship missiles and the costs of maintaining and building carriers has skyrocketed.
"After 100 years, the carrier is rapidly approaching the end of its useful strategic life," Hendrix said. The carriers are now dinosaurs of the sea and "may not be able to move close enough to targets to operate effectively or survive in an era of satellite imagery and long-range precision strike missiles," Hendrix wrote.
But as Greenert testified, “the requirements for Navy carrier forces to be on station to respond to a crisis have only increased in the last 25 years.” His predicament now is getting the carriers ready to go on station.