Going Down With the Ships

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By Craig Hooper
Monday, March 5, 2007

Over the past six years, 79 condemned Navy ships have been towed out to sea and destroyed by Air Force bombs, submarine-launched torpedoes or hails of gunfire. These exercises, long considered the most cost-effective way to dispose of unwanted naval vessels, have eaten away at America's inventory of still-useful retired warships. Soon every vessel capable of serving in America's reserve combat fleet could vanish, leaving an overextended Navy with no viable backup forces. This unwise drawdown goes against Navy tradition.

As the Navy budget, already under pressure because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is hoarded for new shipbuilding initiatives, the inactive reserve, an emergency fleet of second-string warships, is quietly becoming a sham.

Denied maintenance funding and protected only from "fire, flooding and pilferage," decommissioned warships are quickly deteriorating past any hope of recall. The aircraft carrier USS Constellation, "mothballed" in 2003, went from the battle fleet to designation for the artificial-reef donation program in a mere three years.

Since being sworn in early last year, Secretary Donald C. Winter, a former Northrop Grumman executive, has headed a Navy that is continuing to dispatch vessels with an efficiency unseen since just after World War II, when the battle fleet was chopped from 6,768 ships to 634.

Important reserve warships are disappearing. The USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault vessel used to carry helicopters and Marines, returned from a Persian Gulf deployment in 2004, was decommissioned in 2005 and was sunk just eight months later.

At one time, prudent thinking would have dictated that the Belleau Wood undergo a life-extending refit and return to service for 15 more years. But that mind-set is long gone. Meanwhile, a better candidate for target practice, the former USS New Orleans, a helicopter carrier decommissioned in 1997, rots away, still waiting to be sunk.

As the United States confronts an enormous budget deficit and a looming shortage of already overtasked amphibious assault vessels, the expense of mothballing -- and in an emergency, repairing and operating -- venerable Marine "Gators" might seem trivial compared with the cost of the replacement vessels, the Northrop Grumman LHA(R) assault ship.

Even relatively fresh vessels are being wrecked. According the Naval Vessel Registry, the ex-USS Valley Forge, a billion-dollar antiaircraft and missile-defense cruiser (also made by Northrop Grumman), was blasted after serving barely half of an expected 40-year lifetime. Four other recently decommissioned Aegis cruisers will probably follow suit.

This flurry of ship disposal suggests the administration is getting rid of useful warships to compel construction of pricey new vessels such as the next-generation CG(X) anti-missile cruiser or the $3.3 billion DDG-1000 land-attack destroyer. When the Clinton administration pruned the national stockpile of reserve destroyers, only eight feeble, 46-year-old hulks went to the bottom. But the Bush administration has sunk (so far) a 31-year-old fleet of 27 destroyers. Twenty-two others have been scrapped or sold, and additional disposals are pending.

In this carnage, virtually all 31 of the country's middle-aged submarine-hunting Spruance-class destroyers have been sunk, scrapped or scheduled for destruction. As China readies a deep-ocean submarine fleet and more navies deploy cruise missiles on ultra-quiet diesel submarines, the rationale for eliminating a mothballed reserve fleet of sub-killing destroyers is scanty at best. The administration is destroying a cheap insurance policy.

An inactive reserve has always been a national safety net. The country's first large warship, the frigate USS United States, was maintained in mothballs after the Revolutionary War and returned to fight during the War of 1812. In the early days of World War II, when Britain and Canada needed anti-submarine escorts to fight Germany, reserves provided 50 World War I-era destroyers on short notice.

After World War II, prudent Navy leaders invested $213 million to mothball a "Ghost Fleet" of 2,000 surplus vessels. That supplied 381 much-needed warships during the Korean War, including 13 aircraft carriers and two battleships. Other ships were recalled for Vietnam, and even the enormous Iowa-class battlewagons returned to finish out the Cold War.

Some tired Navy assets will always be sunk. Sinking exercises grant an unparalleled opportunity to hone ship-killing skills while simultaneously collecting data that can make new vessels less vulnerable. Real battle data are so valuable that during World War II, the Navy shipped a bombed-out destroyer, the former USS Welles, back from Europe for research. But now, rather than extract all possible value from stricken ships, America appears uneager to study many of its sinking exercises.

This is no way to run a navy. With each sinking, the Navy risks becoming a hollow force, dependent on the construction of pricey ships that, given America's overextended finances, may never arrive.

The writer is a lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He served on the Chief of Naval Operations' Maritime Strategy Working Group at the Naval War College last fall.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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