With the scheduled retirement of the first of the Navy's Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers only years away and no direct replacement set to come online, some fear the Navy is set to lose critical defensive capabilities just as it works to build up the fleet.
But an influential Congressman says the Navy could begin to pay for a five-year service-life extension program for the ships with existing maintenance dollars, and argues the move will help the service move effectively toward its goal of a 355-ship fleet.
Defense News first reported this month that Rep. Rob Wittman, chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, supported a plan to extend the service life of its cruiser fleet. In an interview with Military.com this week, the Virginia Republican explained how exactly the Navy could do it.
To remain effective in the fleet, the aging Ticonderoga class, which entered service in the early 1980s, would need both a hull, mechanical, and electrical, or HM&E, refurbishment, and systems upgrades to Baseline 9, the latest iteration of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system.
The oldest of the vertical launch system variant of the Ticonderoga class, the Bunker Hill, is already in the process of receiving Aegis Baseline 9, Wittman said.
"All the ships can have that put on board, so they can either do the BMD mission or they can do the carrier strike force mission," he said. "So they're a dual-purpose ship; they can do what's necessary."
Estimates of the per-ship cost to complete service-life extension for the cruisers ranges from $280 to $300 million, said Jerry Hendrix, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security, and a retired Navy captain.
The Navy can start in with that work by leveraging existing maintenance funds, Wittman said.
"We put a total of a billion dollars into maintenance accounts this year, which is a significant increase. So we believe the dollars are in the maintenance accounts for them to do the service life extensions for these ships," he said.
The president's budget request for fiscal 2018 included $51.3 billion for Navy operations and Maintenance, compared with $48.2 billion enacted for fiscal 2017 and $46.9 billion the previous year.
Thanks to a "2-4-6" maintenance plan devised by Congress intended to limit the number of cruisers not operationally available due to modernization, some of the money required for maintenance has already been allocated, Wittman said.
"What we'll have to do is look at some additional monies in the out years ... if there are new upgrades, and there always will be with the next baseline for Aegis, to look at the dollars that are there for that," Wittman said. "Staying on track with these ships, and then if we want to, moving things to the left, but putting more money into it."
Why Save the Cruisers
The decommissioning of the cruisers is set to begin in 2019 with the Bunker Hill, which will then be 33.
While Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are similar sizes and operate in concert while deployed, they do fill different missions. The destroyers are heavily armed and equipped to support multiple missions, while the cruisers are geared toward air and ballistic missile defenses.
"Is there a role for what is essentially an air defense, ballistic defense ship in the Navy? … I think the answer is yes," Hendrix said.
A piece of that specialization can be found in the number of vertical launch system, or VLS, cells mounted on each ship -- the Navy's system for holding and firing missiles. While destroyers are equipped with 96 VLS tubes, cruisers have 122 each. Fewer VLS cells means fewer shipboard missiles deployed, all in a global environment that has seen 64 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy ships in two separate strikes within the last year.
"If you retire cruisers and replace them with Burkes, you're accepting a 25 percent decrease on each platform," Hendrix said.
State of the Ships
For the Navy's oldest cruisers facing retirement in the next few years, there's the question of how many could feasibly benefit from a service-life extension program, Hendrix said. He noted that ballast added to come of the oldest of the class to combat instability during sea trials had led to cracking and deformation of ships' keels. The Navy will need to complete a survey of all its cruisers, he said, to determine the condition of each ship.
"On 22 [cruisers], I think we're lucky if we can get half of them to be extended," he said.
Another five cruisers, the first in the class to be built, were designed with a Mark-26 twin-arm missile launcher instead of VLS cells. All were decommissioned in the mid-2000s; two, the Ticonderoga and the Yorktown, are mothballed and waiting to be scrapped.
"Those hulls have five to 10 years less [wear] in them than all the ships we have now," Hendrix said. "You could go back to those and gut them down to the keel and build them up with VLS and an updated SPY [radar] system."
The additional five years of service life would buy the Navy more time to develop a follow-on large surface combatant, which is expected to come after the frigate now being designed.
Wittman said he believes there's sufficient support in Congress to keep the still-capable Ticonderogas around.
"Looking at where people are and understanding how critical a 355[-ship Navy] is, we're looking for every way to get there as quickly as we can," he said. "And with the industrial capacity we have, we can only build so many ships."