CAPITOL HILL: Hours after top Navy officials explained to skeptical lawmakers why they would retire the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier 25 years early, Vice President Mike Pence surprised everyone by delivering the opposite message to sailors aboard the ship.
Standing on the deck of the massive nuclear-powered carrier at its home port of Norfolk, Va., Pence announced that “we are keeping the best carrier in the world in the fight; we are not retiring the Truman.”
If Pence’s reversal becomes real, the service will need to find $3.4 billion over the next five years — the projected savings from doing away with the Truman — to fund a series of modernization efforts it deems critical to meet the challenge of growing Chinese power in the Pacific.
And according to what Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, it could also effect the plan to acquire two new Ford-class carriers at the same time. Instead of refueling the Truman, workers at the Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia could focus on the Ford carriers and modernizing submarines “The workforce, when we look at what is in the shipyards — the combination of submarines, new carriers and then maintenance — all that is done in the same shipyard and that workforce moves from project to project,” he said. “When we look at the total employment, the total employment goes up in the period of time we’re building the two carriers.”
Pence’s statement drew applause from several lawmakers, including one prominent Democratic Senator, who happens to represent Virginia, the state the Truman calls home.
In a statement, Sen. Tim Kaine said he has “pushed hard against the Administration’s plans to mothball the Truman at the midpoint of its working life. I am gratified that the Administration listened and is now committed to the refueling. This is the right call for our national security.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran, also praised the move, saying: “I’m glad that the administration reversed itself because this would have been an awful decision.” The congresswoman served two years aboard the Truman.
Virginian Rep. Rob Wittman also called the move “the right choice,” while Rep. Joe Courtney added he’s “glad to learn that the Trump Administration has finally joined a broad and bipartisan range of opponents against the Trump Administration’s own plan to retire an aircraft carrier that is only about half-way through its planned service life.”
Courtney, chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, then gave a hint at the budget wrangling to come on the Hill this summer.
“So far, my subcommittee has received no further information about any formal revision to the budget request for 2020, or to the Navy’s long-range fleet inventory plans and Aircraft Carrier force structure reflecting this change in position,” he said. “I can only hope that we now have the Administration’s strong support as we prepare to mark up the 2020 defense authorization bill in the coming weeks and move ahead with our planned restoration of the refueling for the USS Harry S. Truman.”
As Courtney’s statement made clear, the budget is in the hand of lawmakers now, and there will be an effort on Capitol Hill to move more money into the Navy’s 2020 budget submission to keep the big deck. But for the moment, any decision over the fate of the Truman remains largely out of the White House’s hands.
Adm. William Moran appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee just hours before Pence spoke. The nominee to become next Chief of Naval Operations defended the carrier’s retirement, saying “we needed to find money” in the current budget to invest in new technologies like unmanned systems, lasers and other high-end assets.
The decision to forgo the ship’s mid-life refueling and subsequently retire her — a story we broke — has been a subject of intense debate since the announcement was made earlier this year. Every member of the Navy’s leadership, as well as Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, have stood behind the decision, painting it as a necessary cost-cutting move. The Navy has assessed that cancelling the mid-life overhaul will save $3.4 billion over the five-year defense plan. But the savings over the 25 years the ship would have been at sea were huge: $20 billion. “Truman is a big bill,” Moran said.
Asked by Sen. Tom Cotton if the Navy would turn down the money to refuel the carrier if Congress offered it, Moran said, “we wouldn’t decline more money,” but offered a note of caution over future budget uncertainty, saying the Navy has to keep a “mindful eye” on where it spends its money given the new classes of frigates, nuclear-capable Columbia-class submarines, and Ford-class carriers it plans to bring into the fleet in coming years.
Speaking at a New America event on Monday, current CNO Adm. John Richardson stood behind the Truman decision. “One thing that characterizes success and failure, I think, is our ability to just move,” he said. “So, we’re trying to move, and that is exactly the decision dynamic with respect to what’s more relevant for the future.” In the coming decades, “is it going to be the Harry S. Truman and its air wing where there’s a lot of innovation taking place, or is it something else? Think lasers, high-powered microwaves. Electromagnetic energy in a focused way that can deliver kinetic or non kinetic effects.”
On Tuesday, Moran praised the Navy’s carrier fleet in general, saying, “the aircraft carrier is the most survivable airfield that we have today — anywhere. And we project it will remain that way well into the future.”
Pence’s comments come more than a month after the White House and Pentagon submitted its fiscal 2020 budget request to the Hill, along with its annual five-year projection of what the services plan to spend in the coming years. In that sense, Pence and the White House are largely subject to what Congress wants to spend on defense.
The White House has often surprised the Pentagon with last-minute demands, from President Trump’s call for a ban on transgender service members to his Tweet that the US would pull troops out of Syria, which led to the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez referred questions about communications between the Navy and the Executive branch back to the White House.
The vice president’s speech adds a new wrinkle to the debate over navy modernization overall. See our story tomorrow morning for details.