February 11, 2013
Credit: Credit: U.S. Navy
Michael Fabey Washington
Washington's budget impasse may succeed where potential adversaries and members of Congress have failed in knocking a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier from fleet rotation.
The Navy maintains 11 carriers now, rotating cruises to cover global missions while scheduling home-port calls for maintenance, downtime or longer overhaul periods, such as midlife refueling that can sideline one of the ships for years. Typically, three carriers are needed to maintain “presence” in any global spot, with one carrier on station and the other two coming and going from home port.
Fleet rotation has been a challenge for the service. Constraints brought by a lack of fresh appropriations for fiscal 2013, which started Oct. 1, 2012, as well as looming “sequestration” cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 would significantly delay the midlife refueling and maintenance on the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and jeopardize funding for the new CVN-79 carrier, Navy officials say. Relief could come with congressional approval to move money within the service's budget for those projects.
In the absence of funding, the U.S. could very well lose a carrier from the operating fleet for some time, depending on how long it takes to iron out the country's finances.
Carriers have always been a target for budget-cutters. Seen by some as a relic of the Cold War era, the new Gerald R. Ford-class models—CVN-78 and beyond—carry a large price tag. The Congressional Research Service notes that Navy's last budget request, a year ago, estimated the CVN-78's procurement cost at $12.3 billion in then-year dollars and CVN-79's at $11.4 billion.
As recent Pentagon reports point out, shepherding a new carrier program through procurement hurdles requires more than simple ship construction. Several systems must be integrated aboard, and problems with any could affect the effort as a whole.
In addition to the Ford-class costs, the Navy budget is strained by midlife refueling of nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers like the Lincoln, which has generally run about $3 billion. The Navy is in the process of deactivating the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which has eight reactors—the most yet to be decommissioned—compared to one for a submarine and two for cruisers. The deactivation will take three years to complete and cost about $900 million, the Navy estimates.