The U.S. Navy’s ambitious plan to maintain a large guided-missile cruiser fleet has come across unexpected costs, putting the future of its aging cruisers into question.
As the Navy decides on a long-term strategy to phase out its 1980s Ticonderoga-class cruisers, part of its cruiser fleet has been placed in a modernization program to ensure the capabilities of U.S. carrier strike groups (CSG’s) through the next decade. Ten such cruisers underwent modernization in the 2000s, with seven more following in 2015.
USNI News recently published an update on the Navy’s cruiser modernization efforts. The ten modernized cruisers, all of which were commissioned in the late 1980s, are becoming increasingly more costly to maintain and less reliable to operate. The five cruisers currently in the modernization program are proving more costly to repair than first suggested by Navy estimates. Vice Adm. and the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command Bill Galinis told USNI that the three of the five cruisers have encountered significant challenges. Galinis described an avalanche of cyclical delays: “What we found in some cases, in particular for the first three ships, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Cowpens, was that a lot of the structural work was not—in some cases all the structural work—was not completed during that second availability, which cascaded into the third, into the larger modernization availability. So from a strategic standpoint, we brought in more work than initially planned when we started the program into that last modernization availability,” he stated. “That being said, all three of those ships right now, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Cowpens, are in that modernization availability—and I will tell you, they’re struggling through the production phase right now.”
Though it cannot explain the full extent of the problems facing the Ticonderoga-class, the coronavirus pandemic is at least partly responsible for these ongoing work availability delays. Still, according to the Galinis, the principal underlying problem is the unexpected degree of work spurred by the warships’ degraded condition. “Number one is the amount of change that we have pushed into the availability, driven principally by, in some cases, the condition of the [hull, mechanical and electrical] plant, the hull in particular. So a lot more structural work than initially anticipated as we got into tanks in some cases that had not been opened for quite some time. Some additional work on the underwater hull portion, including the running gear—and again, in some cases, these ships had not been docked for an extended period of time, so there was more work in that area than initially planned. And then we had some challenges with the main propulsion plant and some additional work in that area. So new and growth work was one of the key drivers,” he said.
As the costs of repairing, refitting, and maintaining the current cruiser fleet grow increasingly stark, the fate of the Ticonderoga modernization project hangs in the balance. The Navy has previously expressed willingness to aggressively phase out legacy and aging hardware to free up funds for new platforms, though Congress may prove hesitant to approve the short-term fleet size reduction that could come as a consequence of abbreviating the ongoing cruiser modernization program.
The Navy intended to replace its troublesome Ticonderoga-class fleet with the ill-fated CG(X) next-generation cruiser program, canceled in 2010 in favor of the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The latest effort to field a direct replacement for the Navy’s aging cruisers comes in the form of the Future Large Surface Combatant, or DDG(X), program. The Navy seeks to procure the first of these DDG(X) vessels around FY2028, but concrete production and acquisition plans are liable to change in coming years.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the national interest.