Navy plan to retire USS Harry S. Truman decades early gets chilly reception in Congress

NORFOLK, Va. - A proposal by the Navy that would send the Norfolk-based USS Harry S. Truman to retirement decades early is getting a chilly reception in Congress so far.

Under the proposed FY2020 budget for the Navy, the USS Harry S. Truman would not be funded for a midlife refueling.

The Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) happens at the mid-point of a carrier's service to the nation. The work includes replacing the reactor core; without that replacement, the ship has to be retired.

The Truman was set to undergo refueling in Newport News in 2024.

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ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 12, 2018) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transits the Atlantic Ocean. Harry S. Truman will continue to foster cooperation with regional allies and partners, strengthen regional stability, and remain vigilant, agile and dynamic. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Swofford/Released)

The loss of the Truman could deal a major blow to the Hampton Roads economy. Asides from the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars a carrier pumps into the local economy, it could also hurt Newport News Shipbuilding which performs the RCOH work.

During a Tuesday hearing in the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle challenged Navy leadership about the decision.

"It seems as though you’re coming before Congress and this could be some sort of shell game where you request to not fund the Truman, but you’re looking for unmanned surface vessels. I don’t think the President’s going to turn to the Secretary of Defense and say, ‘Where are my unmanned surface vessels?’ when a conflict breaks out. They’re going to turn and ask, ‘Where are my aircraft carriers?’” Congresswoman Elaine Luria said during the hearing. Luria, a freshman Democrat and Navy veteran, represents Virginia's 2nd Congressional District.

Republican Rob Wittman, who represents Virginia's 1st Congressional District, also questioned the decision, especially since such a move would reduce the number of active carriers to nine in the years ahead.

"It seems to me to be a counter as to why we are finding ourselves on a path to go to nine with early retirement of the Truman, when it seems to be running counter to what our combatant commanders say," Wittman said.

Earlier Tuesday during a full committee hearing, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan defended the move to retire the Truman when questioned by Wittman.

“I think it’s a strategic choice we need to make. I believe and this was a difficult choice.  We spent a year making this decision and under no certain terms, aircraft carriers are vital now and vital into the future. The Truman decision was made in concert with the two-carrier buy. We looked at how to increase lethality – there isn’t a draw down of capacity until mid-2020s, so it’s not like this is an irreversible decision," Shanahan told him.

James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Aquistion and Vice Admiral William Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems, faced further questions during a Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower hearing on Navy Shipbuilding Programs Wednesday morning.

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, questioned whether providing additional money would "solve" the problem of keeping the Truman, to which Secretary Geurts said yes.

The same line of questioning was later continued by Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii.

"Basically we should consider giving you more money, right," she asked, later continuing "It is hard to explain to people why you would basically have thousands of people who would otherwise be working on the refueling and not to mention we are not getting the full life of this boat. Kind of hard to explain why we are not doing that if there are other ways we can provide funding for that to occur."

Secretary Geurts replied "It won’t be as large a job if we inactivate that ship, so that will carry some of the workforce between this refueling and the next one down the pipe. But we are going to have to watch very closely the skill-sets in that refueling and work closely with the shipyard to balance all of that out because we do not want to lose that critical skill-set."

The Navy says the decision to retire the Truman is only reversible for about a year.

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