Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel caused a stir last week when he outlined severe cutbacks the military faces if Congress does not resolve pending budget cuts. Among the options being considered: Mothballing up to three aircraft carriers.
While Hagel did not say which carriers might be sent to an early retirement, Defense News looked at the likely scenarios and says the USS Harry S. Truman, the USS George Washington and the USS John C. Stennis are the likely candidates.
Dropping the carrier fleet could be done several ways. Two or three ships could simply be ordered to go — likely the oldest ships that have not undergone a refueling overhaul. The older Nimitz-class ships — Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt — are likely safe, having completed their reactor refueling. Abraham Lincoln, which has just begun its overhaul at Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., is likely safe, as the three-year effort has already been largely paid for. But the George Washington, set to begin its refueling overhaul in 2015, would likely go, along with the John C. Stennis and possibly the Harry S. Truman.
Spreading out the current five-year carrier building schedule is dangerous, and could actually lead to increased costs that would cancel out any savings. Significant portions of the carrier supply base are barely sustainable under the current schedule, and some suppliers can be expected to go out of business should the building time be stretched any further. Newport News, faced with the loss of the refueling overhauls and a longer building time, would be forced to lay off several thousand workers, again increasing costs for new ships.
Even laying up the carriers in mothballs will entail major costs. Reactors, once shut down for a significant time, cannot be restarted due to changes in their metallurgy, so the ships cannot be completely shut down and maintained in reserve.
Rather, the reactors would be set to a minimum level and the ships kept at a secure facility, like an active naval base. The Navy already has a significant backlog of seven decommissioned conventional carriers to get rid of, and the nukes would likely sit for some years before actually going away.