Seapower Subcommittee Members Confront Geurts, Merz Over USS Truman’s Proposed Early Retirement
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
Facing critics of the plan to retire the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman with half of its service life left, two Navy officials told a key Senate panel March 27 that the decision was the result of a hard choice that would enable them to acquire other capabilities — such as unmanned surface vessels — to bolster the carrier force.
James Geurts, assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition, and Vice Adm. William R. Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Seapower that the decision to skip the Truman’s midlife refueling could be reversed if Congress would provide more funding to invest in those new technologies.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) countered, saying Geurts’ and Merz’s posture was typical of the Pentagon to “tell Congress we can solve the problem if you give us more money.”
Geurts said the Navy would have to decide to retain Truman by 2021, when parts for the refueling and update would have to be ordered. “After that, it would be irreversible,” he said.
But Merz said the Navy would have to make the decision in 2020 to program advanced procurement funds for spending in 2021. The carrier was planned to go into Newport News Shipbuilding in 2024 to start the overhaul.
Merz said retiring Truman early would have no operational effect until 2027-28, when Truman was expected to rejoin the fleet.
Geurts said retiring Truman at midlife “was not a sign that the Navy was walking away from carriers.” But, looking at how the fleet could be competitive against the peer adversaries of the future “necessitated some bold moves, some trade-offs,” he said.
The Navy is focused on getting the Ford-class carriers and the future carrier airwing into the fleet, but also on getting unmanned systems to complement the carrier, he said.
Merz said it was “a warfighting decision” resulting from a lot of studies on future capabilities. Retiring Truman would save $1 billion a year that “could be put into technologies to complement the carriers.”
But several committee members expressed concern about the loss of warfighting capacity in the face of the threat from a resurgent Russia and rapidly growing Chinese navy. They also worried about the impact on the skilled workforce if hundreds of jobs were no longer needed to refuel and modernize Truman.
Geurts and Merz also addressed members’ concerns about the capability of the private shipyards to get surface ship repairs done on time and the public yards’ ability to keep up with the nuclear submarine workload.
Geurts said the Navy’s budget had funds to modernize the yards, particularly the dry docks, which average 60 years old. The Navy also was supporting programs to train new workers to replace the veteran shipbuilders who are retiring.
Asked about long-range plans for the fleet, Merz said a new force structure study would be completed by the end of this year. Although he did not think the goal of a 355-ship battle fleet would change, he said the mix would be different.
Pressed by Sen. Angus King on reports that the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program was having trouble, Geurts said the problems with defective welding on the missile tubes had “eroded some of the margin” in the schedule, but there still was an 11-month margin to have the first Columbia operational before the Ohio-class strategic subs would have to retire.
Subcommittee chairman David Perdue noted that Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer has said a return of sequestration would cut Navy funding by $26 billion and asked about the impact of Congress failing to again bypass the 2010 Budget Control Act.
Geurts said it “would be devastating” and “essentially undo everything we’ve done the last two years” when Congress overrode the BCA to allow big increases in defense spending. It would not only increase the cost of procurement but erode readiness, he said.
Merz said it would “impact virtually everything we do” and pointed out that the years that BCA was in effect cost the navy $8 billion in buying power.
Lt. Gen. David H. Berger, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said sequestration would mean “we would trade modernization for readiness. Everything would go backwards.”
Committee members congratulated Berger on the announcement that he had just been nominated to replace Gen. Robert B. Neller as Marine Corps commandant this fall.