China Might Love This: Is the U.S. Navy's Cruiser Fleet Doomed?
But it may not be able to escape the difficult acquisition choices still looming over it.
As the U.S. Navy forges ahead with ambitious modernization plans, the fate of its aging cruiser fleet hangs in the balance.
The Navy is under growing pressure to divest from legacy hardware to free up funds for ongoing projects like the hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) missile system and directed energy weapons for surface ships. However, key lawmakers say that the Navy’s investments into future-oriented platforms should not come at the expense of its currently-serving cruisers.
“Our service branches have to come to the table and say, these are places where we can save money. These are places where we can avoid duplication. And listen, as the Navy’s looking at reducing force structure, they’re looking at some things that I think we ought to question: the number of cruisers that they want to reduce, the number of missile tubes associated with those cruisers. The [dock landing ships] that they want to reduce. If they reduce the number of cruisers that they propose, we’re going to lose 1,200 missile tubes. 1,200,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said at the annual McAleese FY 2022 Defense Programs Conference. “The question is, how does that get replaced? And if you’re going to completely remove those and then say we’ll wait four or five years before we get the capacity back, that’s not acceptable. The same with the [dock landing ships]: if you reduce by the full number immediately that the Navy-Marine Corps is proposing, we lose 25 percent of our forcible entry capability. Unacceptable.” Earlier, Rep. Elaine Luria expressed concern about pursuing naval downsizing efforts at a time when China is actively drawing plans to invade Taiwan.
Wittman added that he is not against retiring these systems in principle but that it should be done “the right way”—namely, there should be a smoother, more gradual “transition plan” to ensure that there is not such a sharp, sudden drop in maritime strike capabilities. Wittman said the Navy should pursue ways to make room in its budget for modernization efforts without sending their cruisers to an early retirement. Part of the solution could be smarter throughput. In fact, former Navy acquisition chief James Geurts said that the Navy managed to save substantially over the past two years simply through more efficient contracting practices. “So we’ve been on a campaign of, let’s get real, let’s really understand where is our cost, where’s our spend,” Geurts said. “I think of dollars, people or time; fundamentally understand that so we can fix the things that matter the most that will move the needle the most and not confuse activity with outcome.”
Still, the Navy may not be able to escape the difficult acquisition choices still looming over the service. As it mulls a long-term procurement strategy to replace the 1980s-era Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the Navy has pursued an ambitious stopgap solution: extending the lifespan of its current cruiser fleet through a far-reaching cruiser modernization program. But the ten cruisers modernized under the program are becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain and operate. The five cruisers currently undergoing modernization are proving more costly and difficult to repair than expected, with cyclical delays and a slew of complex maintenance challenges.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.