(PORTLAND, Maine) — The Navy that once wanted smaller, speedy warships to chase down pirates has made a speedy pivot to Russia and China — and many of those recently built ships could be retired.
The U.S. Navy wants to decommission nine ships in the Freedom-class of littoral combat ships — warships that cost about $4.5 billion altogether to build.
According to the Navy’s budget proposal, this would allow $50 million for each ship per year that could be used for priority programs. But it would also reduce the size of the fleet that’s already surpassed by China in sheer numbers, something that could cause members of Congress to balk.
Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, supported the idea that placed emphasis on long-range weaponry and modern warships while eliminating other vessels ill-equipped to deal with current threats.
“We need a ready, capable, lethal force more than we need a bigger force that’s less ready, less lethal, and less capable,” he said Monday at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space symposium in Maryland.
The Navy plans to destroy 24 vessels, five of which are cruisers. It also wants two Los Angeles-class submarines to be scrapped as part of cost cutting measures to keep the fleet afloat and to build new warships. These reductions are greater than those proposed to build the remaining nine ships.
They are mostly older ships. But, they are all young littoral combat ship. Their oldest member is 10 years.
When the Navy announced its program, a few months following Sept. 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, it envisioned warships that could operate in littoral and near-shore waters. The ships topped 50 mph (80 kph) — fast enough to chase down pirates — and utilized steerable waterjets instead of conventional propellers.
These ships would have been able to adapt through the use of plug-and play mission modules that could be used for mine-sweeping, anti-submarine warfare and surface combat. The mission modules had problems and anti-submarine capabilities were canceled.
But what about the speed? The fastest ship can’t outrun missiles, and firing up those marine turbines for an extra burst of speed turned the ships into gas guzzlers, analysts said. The early versions were also criticized for being too light-armed and poorly armored to withstand combat.
Traditional steel hulls are used on the Freedom-class fast ships that have been proposed for decommissioning. The entire ship class is affected by a costly propulsion problem that requires expensive repair. A second version, called the aluminum Independence class by Navy, is proposed.
Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said the program was plagued by troubles from the start, and that “moving forward the Navy must avoid similar acquisition disasters.”
U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, was more blunt, tweeting that it “sucks” to be decommissioning so many ships, especially newer ones.
“The Navy owes a public apology to American taxpayers for wasting tens of billions of dollars on ships they now say serve no purpose,” she said.
Some detractors proclaimed littoral combat ships to be the Navy’s “Little Crappy Ship,” but that’s not fair, said defense analyst Loren Thompson.
“It’s not a little crappy ship. It does exactly what it was designed to. What it was supposed to do isn’t enough for the kind of threats that we face today,” said Thompson, from the Lexington Institute.
In the Navy’s defense, threats shifted swiftly from the Cold War to the war on terror to the current Great Power Competition in which Russia and China are asserting themselves, he said.
Bryan Clark from the Hudson Institute defense analyst, suggested that in the end the Navy could be happy with less Freedom-class ships to provide maritime security and for small surface combatant operation, but not too many.
Congress must sign off on the Navy’s proposal to decommission ships ahead of their projected service life.
On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee grilled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Army General Mark Milley (chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) about the proposal.
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, suggested the ship cuts were “grossly irresponsible” when the U.S. Navy has dipped from 318 ships to 297, while the Chinese fleet has grown from 210 to 360 ships over the past two decades.
Milley said it’s important to focus on the Navy’s capabilities rather than the size of its fleet.
“I would bias towards capability rather than just sheer numbers,” he said.
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