Lawmakers grilled Navy leaders about a plan to send an aircraft carrier into retirement decades early when military leaders around the world are calling for more, not less, naval support.
Members of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee pressed service leaders on Tuesday to explain why they should get behind cutting short the service life of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman.
The plan is detailed in the 2020 budget request, which was released earlier this month. The money the service had planned to spend on refueling the carrier's nuclear reactor core would instead be used on new cutting-edge technology, including unmanned ships.
But combatant commanders in the Middle East and Europe who have called for a carrier presence already aren't seeing those requests met, said Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and retired Navy surface-warfare officer.
"We're not meeting that forward-deployed presence, so how can you justify further reducing the carrier presence?" she asked.
Retiring the Truman early is "not a warfighting decision," said Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems. "It was more of an investment decision."
The service needs to free up funds to pay for "the Navy of the future," James Geurts, assistant Navy secretary for research development and acquisition, told lawmakers. The Navy must be ready to compete against a near-peer enemy, he said.
"[That] led to some tough choices," Geurts said. "One of those is to retire that ship early in favor for looking at other technologies, other larger cost-imposing strategies."
That plan seems to go against the Navy's own recommendations, said Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican. The service's own force-structure assessment calls for 12 flattops, he said. Retiring the Truman early would drop the total number below 10, years before the new Ford-class carriers are expected to hit the fleet.
"Why then would we retire the Truman 25 years early in relation to the demands that we see around us and with our adversaries building carriers at a pretty brisk pace?" Wittman asked.
The Navy is "all in" on the Ford-class carriers though, Geurts replied, estimating that the first of those ships would be ready by October following a series of setbacks. The Navy has plans to buy two more Ford-class carriers.
"We are ... moving to that carrier as fast as we can," he said. "It's got increased survivability and increased capability to fly the air wing of the future."
But Luria questioned whether booting an existing carrier years before it's expected to be retired is a good use of taxpayer dollars.
"The cheapest ship we have out there is the ship we already have. We just have to take care of that ship and make sure it lasts for its full expected service life," she said. "I just can't even comprehend the thought process that we're 'saving money' by decommissioning a ship halfway through its life."
In an earlier hearing on Tuesday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was also questioned about the Truman. While he called it a strategic choice the Navy needs to make, he indicated the Pentagon might still reverse course.
"There isn't a drawdown of capacity until mid-2020, so it's not like this is an irreversible decision," he said.