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Aircraft Carriers: How Budget Cuts Delay Overhauls And Trim The Fleet

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

With all the services reining in spending to cope with the current budget crisis, the second and third-order effects of cutbacks will ripple through the force for years. While the Army “has it worst” by the Pentagon comptroller’s own assessment, the most complicated impacts are on the Navy, whose carefully planned maintenance schedule is falling apart. The fleet has already had to halve its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf, but delayed and cancelled overhauls will ultimately mean fewer ships in service in the years to come.

Ships require a lot of maintenance to work to stay ready for action, and none more than nuclear aircraft carriers. In addition to the regular pierside pitstops every type of vessel has to make, Nimitz-class carriers need their reactors refueled and thoroughly overhauled halfway through their 50-year service life. This massive “Refueling and Complex Overhaul” (RCOH) can only be performed at one shipyard in the nation, Huntington Ingalls Newport News yard in Virginia, so the next carrier has to come in as soon as the previous one is done. But last month the Navy delayed the USS Abraham Lincoln‘s overhaul indefinitely for lack of funds. That will in turn delay the next carrier on the schedule, the George Washington, and so on down the line.

The graphic above (click to see full size) vividly portrays the sheer complexity of a RCOH – over 20 million man-hours, “equivalent to building the Golden Gate Bridge, twice” – and the tight heel-to-toe sequence of carrier overhauls that the budget crisis has now disrupted.

There’s an element of propaganda here, of course: The infographic was created for a campaign by the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition, whose roughly 400 member companies have an obvious financial interest in keeping the work going and their cashflow flowing. Founded in 2004, ACIBC wrote Congressional leaders in February asking them to extricate overhaul funding from the budgetary gridlock and is holding an “Action Day” on Capitol Hill today which kicked off at 11.

Such groups are notoriously prone to pitching inflated estimates of the jobs lost from cuts to their pet programs, but that’s not what ACIBC is doing here. Lobbyists they may be, but in this graphic they’re sticking to the facts – and the facts are unnerving enough.

What do you think?