House committee may conduct greater oversight of Navy ship maintenance

WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee’s members may take a more active oversight role on Navy ship maintenance, after one lawmaker was “bitterly disappointed” the service let some of its cruisers “decay” amid high demand.

Rep. Rob Wittman, who sits on the committee’s sea power panel, told Defense News he is frustrated with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday and other leaders for the state of the naval fleet.

He said he was “alarmed” when the Biden administration asked to buy nine ships in its fiscal 2024 budget request this spring but retire 11, leading to a smaller fleet at a time when the U.S. is trying to deter Chinese aggression against its Pacific neighbors.

The Navy requested to decommission five cruisers, including three that have not reached their expected 35-year service life: Cowpens, Shiloh and Vicksburg. Congress last year voted to save Vicksburg when the Navy tried to decommission it as part of its FY23 spending request.

The Navy also asked to decommission three amphibious ships that have not yet reached their planned service life and which Congress voted to save in FY23: Germantown, Gunston Hall and Tortuga.

“You’re not going to get to [the congressionally mandated 355-ship fleet size] if you’re retiring ships early. And if you look at some of those situations, what’s happened is the Navy hasn’t been as rigorous in their maintenance scheduling and efforts there, and when you aren’t rigorous with that, your ships wear out faster,” said Wittman, who previously chaired the sea power subcommittee.

Some cruisers, including Vicksburg, have gone through a lengthy upgrade process and sport new combat systems, but the hull, mechanical and electrical systems “decayed” during their extended time at the pier.

Wittman said the sea power subcommittee members will this year agree to let Vicksburg retire early because “it’s in horrible shape, and it really wasn’t worth the money to put back in. But that was the result of the Navy’s lack of attention to the ship; they let the ship atrophy, and they came to us and go: ‘Hey, look, we shouldn’t put money into this.’ And they’re correct.”

Still, he said, other ships shouldn’t meet this same fate.

“We were bitterly disappointed with that, and we had some heart-to-heart conversations with Secretary [Carlos] Del Toro, Adm. Gilday [and Naval Sea Systems Command head Vice Adm. Bill] Galinis about the Navy’s perspective on ship maintenance. Because Adm. Gilday came in and said, ‘That’s my priority,’ and things haven’t happened the way they should,” Wittman added.

The Virginia Republican said subcommittee members visited the repair yards and met with Gilday personally to discuss ship maintenance and to make clear that they wanted to save whatever ships were in good enough material condition to save, despite the Navy’s reservations about spending money to repair old ships when it would prefer to invest in new, high-end technologies.

Wittman said he talked to Del Toro about trying to extend the expected service lives of some of the remaining cruisers — “to get a few more years out of those ships to make up for the years that we’ve lost with the ships that are being retired now early.”

The Navy recently announced a five-year extension of the first-in-class destroyer Arleigh Burke but has not weighed in on extending the lives of cruisers or other aging surface ship classes.

Wittman also said he and his colleagues would take a more proactive approach to ensuring the Navy gets the most out of the ships it has at a time “when the demand signal is off the charts and we need these ships.”

“I think,” Wittman said, knocking on the arm of his wooden chair in his Capitol Hill office, “if everything is followed up on — and we’ve heard this story before, so call me a little bit reticent to make sure we see the action, but the Navy is saying all the right things — we’re going to hold their feet to the fire.”

He said he spoke to fellow subcommittee member Rep. Jen Kiggans, another Virginia Republican whose district includes Navy facilities, and “what we’re going to do, what we need to do, is we’re going to start visiting these ships when they’re in their maintenance phase.”

“We need to go visit the Cowpens and the Shiloh and watch them as they’re doing this, and make sure the Navy knows we’re watching. You can’t tie the ship up to the dock and slow-play the maintenance and then come back to us and go: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s in horrible shape.’ So we have to do our job, too, and pay a little more attention.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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