PENTAGON: Of the four armed services’ budget plans for 2017, the one most likely to make Congress apoplectic is the Navy’s. On top of reintroducing a cruiser modernization plan repeatedly rejected by the Hill, the Navy proposes deactivating a carrier air wing — which tangles with the touchy issue of how many carriers the US should have — and turning its highest profile drone from a stealth bomber to a refueling tanker with limited strike capabilities with an 80 percent smaller budget.
9 Wings For 10 Carriers
Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers have to undergo a massive mid-life Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH) that takes them out of service for four years. Currently, the Navy has 10 nuclear aircraft carriers and 10 carrier air wings, one for each flattop — but one carrier is always in overhaul at any given time, and one wing, CVW-14, is undermanned and underused, not having deployed since 2011. Wings can train while their counterpart carrier is in drydock, but it’s hard to keep full proficiency in carrier operations without a carrier.
So why not match the number of air wings to the number of active carriers, the Navy asks? That would save a lot of money in tight budgetary times. It would also free up aircraft to fill holes in other units at a time when the Navy’s suffering a significant fighter shortfall.
The problem is the Navy has 10 carriers now, but it’s required by law to have eleven. Congress waived this requirement while the fleet built back up. (The law also requires 10 air wings….). Key members of Congress, notably House seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes, are intensely suspicious of the administration and fear proposed cuts will lead to a permanent 10-carrier fleet. Nine carrier air wings imply 10 carriers — not Congress’s longed-for eleven.
How does the Navy square this circle? By calculating not just how many carriers are in the fleet, but how many are fully available versus those undergoing major maintenance. The Navy reckons we won’t have 11 active carriers again — and therefore won’t need 10 air wings — until 2025. When that happens, they also reckon they can bring the tenth air wing back.
“The proposed plan matches the number of complete carrier air wings to the number of operationally available carriers (nine) through 2025,” said a Navy spokesperson, Lt. j.g. Kara Yingling, in an email. “This accounts for one carrier in refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH) and one to two carriers in major scheduled maintenance periods.”
“The Navy will continue to assess requirements based on Global Force Management Allocation Plan (GFMAP) changes in coming years,” Yingling continued. “Because we are deactivating vice decommissioning, if requirements change in the future and we need to reactivate a 10th air wing, it will require a less rigorous administrative process.” In other words, a “deactivated” wing isn’t completely disbanded, making its resurrection easier.
Will this answer be enough to satisfy Congress? The Navy needs to cross its fingers.
UCLASS To CBARS: Dumbed Down Drone?
Powerful defense lawmakers want the UCLASS drone to be a carrier-based stealth bomber, including Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain and House seapower chairman Forbes. The UCLASS’s proposed successor, CBARS — the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System — will be lightly armed, Rear Adm. William Lescher told reporters this afternoon. But it won’t be capable of long-range strike or reconnaissance into defended airspace, he said. Instead, its key missions will be refueling manned aircraft; conducting intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting in “permissive” airspace; and conducting “limited strike.”
CBARS will also make due on one fifth the budget that UCLASS had: $89 million in Navy R&D dollars for CBARS in 2017, compared to $435 million for UCLASS in 2016. Why such a drop? It “simply reflects the change and the restructure” from UCLASS to CBARS, Lescher said. Would CBARS funding go up in future years once the restructured program finds its feet again? “I won’t project or speculate,” he said, but once CBARS gets underway, we can expect a “higher fidelity” funding profile next year.
CBARS will get drones on the carrier deck quicker that UCLASS, Lescher said, precisely because it’s much less technologically ambitious. “This is a quicker, mid-’20s IOC [Initial Operational Capability],” he said. CBARS will allow the fleet to figure out how unmanned and manned aircraft coexist in carrier operations and pave the way for future, more sophisticated drones. “It’s a smart acquisition approach to incrementally burn down that risk,” he said.
Cruising For A Bruising On Capitol Hill?
The third red flag the Navy is waving at Congress is its cruiser modernization plan. At one point, the service wanted to retire the aging Ticonderoga class, but Congress shot that down. The Navy then proposed putting the newest “Ticos” into long-term, slow-motion modernization. The idea was to save the fiscal costs and physical wear and tear of operating the ships, then reintroduce them into the fleet as the oldest Ticonderoga cruisers retired.
Forbes and others on the Hill, however, saw the Navy’s plan as a backdoor way to retire the cruisers, fearing they’d go into “modernization” but never come out again. So Congress imposed strict limits. Only two cruisers could go into modernization each year; no cruiser could be kept out of service for more than four years, and only six could be in modernization at any given time, and no cruiser could be out of service for more than six years — the “2-4-6” rule.
Now the Navy wants to put seven cruisers into modernization all at once, for a total of nine. They’d then come back out at unspecified times in the future, one at a time, to replace older Ticonderogas retiring. This wholesale departure from the fleet and retail return lets shipyards fit cruiser overhauls into their workload more efficiently, the Navy says, and would save money over keeping the vessels in operation.
Will the cruisers really come back? “The department leadership has spoken very clearly about the commitment to bring these cruisers back into the fleet,” Lescher said. “We have this important requirement for air defense commander capable platforms, one per carrier strike group” — a role only the larger Ticonderoga cruisers can fill, not the smaller Arleigh Burke destroyers.
“The evidence of that commitment is the $500 million dollars that is invested in this budget to make the FY17 plan work,” he said. “[Also], the department is proposing essentially increased congressional oversight [over] any changes to the status of these cruisers, [e.g.] inactivation.”
Will these extra safeguards satisfy Congress? Almost certainly not.