The U.S. Navy late last week awarded a contract to begin planning to defuel a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that may be targeted for decommissioning due to budget cuts.
The service's Sea Systems Command on Friday issued a $50 million contract to Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. in preparation of defueling the USS George Washington (CVN-73), a Nimitz-class carrier commissioned in 1992, according to the announcement.
"This effort will provide for advanced planning, ship checks, design, documentation, engineering, procurement, fabrication and preliminary shipyard or support facility work to prepare for the defueling work," it states.
Chris Miner, vice president for in-service aircraft carrier programs at the company's Newport News Shipbuilding unit, welcomed the agreement in hopes that it will lead to a so-called refueling and complex overhaul, or RCOH -- a process that can take more than four years and cost as much as $7 billion.
"We hope this award is a first step toward the highly anticipated full award of the RCOH planning contract," he said in a statement.
Due to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the Defense Department didn't include money in its fiscal 2015 budget request to begin the process of refueling the George Washington.
Navy officials have said they're waiting to see if Congress votes to undo the spending reductions in 2016 before deciding to decommission the vessel. If sequestration continues, they'd be forced to retire the ship -- even though such a move would leave the Navy with a 10-carrier fleet and conflict with existing law that requires the service to have an 11-carrier fleet.
The Republican-led House of Representatives in June voted to restore $789 million next year for advance procurement of material needed for the refueling effort, according to a report accompanying the lower chamber's fiscal 2015 defense appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Committee, led by Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, called the Navy's deferral a "shortsighted position," given that Congress has already appropriated several hundred million dollars to refuel the George Washington, according to the document. The panel "believes that walking away from the George Washington halfway through its service life is shortsighted," it states.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, took a similar approach and also in June voted to appropriate even more funding -- $850 million -- for the refueling and overhaul program, according to a report accompanying the legislation.
"CVN 73 has more than 20 years of service life remaining, and the Navy cannot meet all U.S. combatant commanders' requirements with the current aircraft carrier fleet," it states. "Furthermore, U.S. law requires the Navy to maintain not less than 11 operational aircraft carriers."
While the report also notes that the Navy plans to move ahead with the refueling with "previously appropriated funds," the Democrat-led upper chamber hasn't yet voted on the appropriations bill. Congress on Friday adjourned for recess until September.
The George Washington has been underway in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility, including the East China Sea, supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts, according to recent photographs released by the Navy.