On 14 August 1945, VJ Day, the United States Navy force strength stood at the staggering total of 6,768 ships and craft in commission. Of these, 833 were surface warships, 232 submarines, and 1,267 auxiliaries of all types.
While many hundreds of worn-out ships were immediately identified for disposal, or used in the Crossroads testing, most of those so identified were obsolete battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, many dating back to the First World War, with little combat value to the Navy. Or they were ships that had suffered extensive battle damage that could not be economically repaired for their worth as fighting ships.
More than 1,300, however, were modern warships, some with only a few years of service, and all modified to meet the challenges of the war at sea for 1944-45. These ships represented a veritable fortune of taxpayer wealth, and the US Navy understood this well. The ten-minute video above provides some interesting insights into the time, resources, and methodology required to inactivate and preserve a warship. It is worth the watch.
Though some criticize the “mothballing” of the preponderance of the Navy’s ships after World War II as a waste of money, history bears out the wisdom of the entire program. Since 1945, the Reserve Fleets have played a key and sometimes vital role in America’s strategic power projection and combat operations the world over.
By 25 June 1950, the day North Korean forces plunged across the 38th Parallel to being the Korean War, the United States Navy had shrunk more than 90% from its VJ-Day strength, to 634 ships. The number of surface warships had been reduced from more than 800 to just 161, aircraft carriers (CV and CVE) from 99 to just 15. Suddenly, there was a dire need for Naval combat power. The ships carefully preserved provided a rapid and inexpensive option to meet that need. During the Korean War, the US Navy reactivated almost 500 ships. That number included seven Essex-class Fleet Carriers, three Iowas, six Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, 39 Fletchers, and more than 200 amphibious ships and attack transports. The ships taken out of mothballs ALONE exceeded the combat strength of the entire Royal Navy in 1950. By the Armistice in 1953, the Navy had grown to 1,122 ships, with the vast preponderance of that growth having been recommissioned vessels which had been in mothballs for several months to more than six years.
The culling of the Reserve Fleets in the late 1950s and again in the late 1960s removed ships that had grown obsolete beyond reasonable rehabilitation, such as the pre-war New Orleans-class CAs, (1959) most of the Baltimore CAs (1969-71), the Fletchers, and the remaining Benson-Gleaves destroyers (1969-71) reducing the size of those fleets significantly. Most of those ships were scrapped, sunk as targets, or hulked as spare parts sources for units in commission, and a surprising number went to foreign military sales. A number of former US warships served into the 1990s and beyond, often as the most powerful units in allied navies until near the end of their service lives. A few, in the Mexican and Philippine Navies, remain in commission today.
As late as 1991, the Reserve Fleets supplied 79 transports for Desert Storm, many from the James River Fleet. Some of those ships dated back to World War II, and helped carry the equipment and supplies needed for US forces in the liberation of Kuwait.
So why have I presented a short history of preserving Navy warships?
As a historical lesson, in all three instances mentioned, fighting a war Korea (while engaged in a Cold War during and after), the equipping of allied navies with powerful naval units, and accessing the maritime lift capacity to deploy half a million troops, the Reserve Fleets were positively instrumental. The cost and time to build the combat and combat support capabilities would have made any alternative unfeasible.
But beginning in the early 1990s, the US Navy moved decidedly away from any efforts to preserve decommissioned warships, despite the prohibitive replacement costs relative to preservation efforts. As the “Peace Dividend” ate away at our Navy’s strength, a number of modern and powerful warships were decommissioned. Rather than opting for preservation as war reserve assets, or modernization to fleet standards, these ships were disposed of. The Virginia-class CGNs, built for 35 years of service, were decommissioned at half of their service lives, the oldest being 19 years, the newest, just fifteen years. The first five Ticonderoga CGs were retired rather than modified for the Mk 41 Vertical Launch System, again at roughly half of their respective 35 year service lives. Many of the Spruance-class destroyers were decommissioned and disposed of before reaching twenty years of service.
In the cases of each of those classes of warship, the Navy claimed economic unfeasibility for either modernizing or keeping those vessels in mothballs. The Virginias supposedly cost $40 million per year to operate, versus the $27 million annual cost of an AEGIS CG, which the Navy used to justify retiring powerful and modern fully-capitalized assets. The cost of a replacement Ticonderoga? About $1.2 billion. A hundred years’ worth of operating costs would be necessary to cover replacement of a Virginia CGN. Modernization of the first five Ticonderogas from the Mk 26 twin-arm launcher to the Mk 41 VLS was expected to be around $80-90 million per ship. Rather than complete the modifications to keep these modern ships in service, the Navy discarded them, once again without replacement.
The poor material condition of many of the ships activated for Desert Storm began a long and vociferous criticism of the Reserve Fleets, as environmentalists and other less-than military friendly activists have demanded their removal and immediate disposal. However, much of what is highlighted regarding the severe deterioration of the warships and auxiliaries in those fleets is the result of the blatant short-shrifting of the manpower and funding requirements to maintain the Reserve Fleets as ready-reserve assets. In addition, despite cuts to MARAD which precluded the proper maintenance of what is now called the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), the numbers of ships reported as suitable for activation remained relatively constant.
Currently, between the three Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facilities (Philadelphia, Bremerton, and Pearl Harbor) and the “ghost” fleets in Suisun Bay and the James River, only a handful of ships remain in reserve, some FFG-7s, and some amphibs, and USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63).
The Navy has all but abandoned preservation, and seemingly has no plans to undertake such a program again. This approach is foolhardy and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. Warships, since the advent of steam power and steel construction, remain the single most expensive weapon system in any nation’s arsenal.
Congress in 2012 forbade the United States Navy from decommissioning an additional seven Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers, much to the chagrin of senior Navy officials. The Navy, for its part, had no plans whatever to preserve these modern, relatively new, very expensive warships, but had targeted them once again for disposal. Congressional leaders were absolutely correct in refusing to allow the Navy to dispose of tens of billions of dollars of high-technology warships because they claimed to be unable to afford to operate them. Once again, the Navy proposed the retirement and disposal of massively-expensive and fully-capitalized assets, BILLIONS of dollars in replacement costs, to save some tens of millions from their operating budget. That such a proposal makes sense to Navy leadership is unsurprising in light of the “optimal manning” catastrophe which caused the serious deterioration of our warships, repair of which will cost many times the perceived manpower savings of the reduced crews.
I have had senior Navy Officers tell me that the disposal of a fully capitalized asset at half its service life does not increase lifecycle cost, and that such things are of no consequence. That what matters is “moving forward”. Which is precisely why I have very little confidence when the US Navy or ANY of its senior leadership begin to wax authoritative about how they are good stewards of the taxpayers’ treasure. Because they have not been. In fact, they have behaved wildly irresponsibly, not just with our tax money but with our maritime capabilities. AEGIS ships, we are told, are not easy to preserve. Electronics and such, complex weapons and sensor suites. Too hard, we are told. I consider such notions to be a major failure of leadership, on the part of SECNAV Mabus, the last three CNOs, and the legion Flag Officers that outnumber by a wide margin the ships in commission.
For the billions of dollars and strategic implications riding on it? Here’s what, Navy. FIGURE IT OUT. Find a system to either land the critical components of the SPY-1 radar suite, or preserve them in situ, along with the other critical components. I also have a very hard time believing the LM2500 turbines are more complex to preserve than the engineering plants of steam-driven warships of some decades ago. Figure it out.
You see, unlike 1945, or even 1992, the vessels the Navy has decommissioned and disposed of since 1997 (and those they proposed to dispose of in 2011) are far from excess. They are crucial to the execution of our Maritime Strategy. We are anywhere from 29 to 35 ships below what has been considered the MINIMUM ship strength for meeting our commitments on the world’s oceans, over them, and under them. Navy leadership should take a lesson from the past, and figure out how to build the capacity and capability to preserve crucial national defense assets that the taxpayers bought and entrusted to them if they haven’t the funding for full operation. It isn’t like we haven’t done so before. There is an option between full commission and disposal. Professional Naval leaders should understand that, and should care for their Navy and the treasure of the nation that it represents, accordingly.