There have been recent discussions in maritime news outlets and the blog world regarding the possible reactivation of U.S. warships from the “mothball” fleet. Such ships could be used to help build the fleet to the 350-ship mark endorsed by the Trump administration and numerous defense experts. While perhaps an inviting prospect on the surface, such an undertaking is problematic and is not a good choice for increasing the size of the fleet in anything but a short-term assessment. A look at the history of warship reactivations and modernizations in the 20th century suggests that such a program would be costly and at best produce naval combatants of limited utility. Even ships removed from active service in the last five years could face severe shortages in the basic hull, mechanical, and electrical systems (HM&E), as well as trained personnel needed to get them ready for mere peacetime operations. Old ships require more maintenance and would be an additional burden on a U.S. Navy maintenance system that lacks the funding to maintain the current fleet. Nearly all would require expensive combat systems updates to make them marginally ready for combat. Finally, U.S. naval strategy remains unclear at this point, despite a growing naval threat from the “four plus one” state and non-state powers that have been identified as potential U.S antagonists. A functioning U.S. Maritime Strategy equal in scope and organization to the 1980’s era Maritime Strategy ought to be in place before making potentially, costly decisions to reactivate old U.S. warships. Continued, if even slow construction of new warships with open architecture systems that can readily accept updated systems and software is the best choice to grow and maintain the fleet.
Dreams of reactivating older U.S. warships may stem from the experience of the post-World War II era when mothballed ships were reactivated for service in the Cold War, including active conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Most of these, however, were non-combatant military sealift, cargo, and support units rather than complex surface combatants. Several warships were re-activated during the Korean War, and many served through the middle years of the Cold War. Most, however, were fairly simple reactivations without significant updates to the ships’ HME or combat systems. Reactivations like this include the battleships and cruisers destined for naval surface fire support roles where they faced little or no return opposition. More complex undertakings such as the conversion of mothballed World War 2-era gun cruisers into modern guided missile combatants, such as USS Boston (CAG-1) took years to complete, were not entirely successful, and were costly, with the final price tag in millions of 1950’s-era dollars.
The reactivation of the Iowa-class battleships is also held up as an example of how older warships can be returned to active service at good value. While perhaps brought back to active service for the cost of building a new frigate, the battleships proved costly and difficult to maintain in full commission. The class was again retired less than a decade after the first was recommissioned with cost and personnel shortages as the primary reasons for the battlewagons’ return to the mothball and museum fleet. Upgrading any of the current classes of decommissioned naval vessels is likely to be just as costly and in many cases will need to start with just making the reactivated ships seaworthy.
While discussion of ship reactivations has centered on their combat systems, the process of returning even recently retired ships can involve a great deal of repair and replacement of basic hull, mechanical, and electrical components. Ships’ hull plating gets thinner over time, mechanical equipment, especially piping systems, suffers corrosion, and electrical equipment develops grounds and broken circuits over even a short period of inactivation. In many cases, the suppliers of such equipment, first provided over a quarter century ago, are no longer in operation to make replacements or affect repairs to existing parts. Older warships, as with older automobiles, require more maintenance than do their younger cousins. The Navy retired aging ships in the 1990’s and 2000’s to reduce maintenance costs. Despite these efforts, pressures to maintain and even increase the size of the fleet have contributed to rising maintenance costs as older ships are retained longer and vital maintenance is deferred due to lack of funds or the operational, non-availability of the ship. A 2015 RAND report on rising warship maintenance costs suggests that this growth in maintenance cost will soon be unsustainable without substantial maintenance budget increases. The addition of reactivated, older ships would only contribute to overloaded maintenance requirements.
The training establishment and the number of sailors qualified to operate that basic equipment also degrades, and in some cases, disappears even before the last ship of a class is retired. The officer training program for billets in the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates was retired a year before the last of that class was retired in September 2015. Returning the required number of trained sailors needed to operate currently decommissioned ships will also be a challenge. It has been suggested that the retired conventional carrier Kitty Hawk might be recommissioned for service. The Navy still contains large, steam-driven warships such as the Wasp-class amphibious warfare ships, but Kitty Hawk, the last conventional-powered carrier, has been out of service since 2009 and few sailors (if any) familiar with her engineering plant remain in active service. Such sailors would need to be identified and re-trained to fill an engineering department of hundreds of sailors for a ship needing a total crew of 4,500.
Consider these proposed ship class reactivations in light of historical experience, material conditions, maintenance, personnel and training concerns:
The conventional aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk: The carrier was the subject of a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) overhaul from 1987 to 1990 that was designed to add 15 years to the ships existing lifespan. That overhaul cost $947.5 million in 1987 dollars and just over $2 billion in 2017. Any future service could require a similar effort to ensure a cost effective reactivation for Kitty Hawk, as opposed to the battleships that served less than a decade. Two billion dollars would buy a great deal of modernization and maintenance for other Navy platforms. The Navy would also need an additional air wing with which to outfit the carrier since the 10th such wing (Carrier Air Wing 14) was decommissioned in March of this year. The combination of reactivation cost for an old ship and absence of an existing air wing for the vessel suggest that reactivating the Kitty Hawk is not a good choice.
The Flight 1 Ticonderoga-class cruisers: Three of the five remaining Flight 1 cruisers remain available for potential modernization. USS Valley Forge (CG 50) was expended as a target in 2006, and USS Vincennes (CG 49) was scrapped in 2010. It has been reported that USS Thomas Gates (CG 51) had preliminary work done as early as 1995 to support an MK41 vertical launch missile system (VLS) installed in place of its forward, MK26 twin-arm missile launcher. Gates is also reputed to have a litany of problems including a misaligned bow that could explain her early retirement from active service and complicate her reactivation. USS Ticonderoga (CG 47) and USS Yorktown (CG 48) have been out of service for over a decade and likely suppliers of spare parts for their active duty sisters. None of the three remaining CG 47 class ships is in the relatively pristine condition as were the Iowa-class battleships in the early 1980’s or those World War 2-era vessels restored for active service in the early Cold War. They could not be restored without significant effort.
Oliver Hazard Perry class (FFG 7) frigates: These vessels have a loyal following of former sailors and have
been suggested as likely candidates for reactivation. A thorough consideration of the problems and costs involved in such an effort, however, should dissuade the Navy from such an undertaking. The Perry’s were retained in the post-Cold War era as they required less crew and were cheaper to operate than the more capable but more costly Spruance (DD 963) class destroyers. The service recognized that the class was largely out of date in the early 2000’s when it removed the bulk of its combat systems equipment. This deletion included the heart of the ships’ MK92 fire control system including the Separate Tracking and Illumination fire control radar (STIR), and the class’ MK13 single arm missile launcher responsible for launching its SM-1 medium range, surface to air missiles, Harpoon antiship missile, and Rocket-boosted antisubmarine torpedo (ASROC) weapon. Without these, the Perry’s were little more than a large gunboat, with a 76mm gun, 20mm Vulcan Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) and flight deck.
Other nations who obtained former U.S. FFG 7’s through foreign military sales (FMS) have kept theses weapon systems in place. The Spanish and Taiwanese navies built its own variants of the FFG 7 design and are upgrading those ships’ combat systems. The Australian navy had an ambitious program to upgrade its Perry-class vessels to include newer and larger numbers of weapons, improved sensors, and HM&E upgrades. This upgrade cost about $1B U.S. dollars in 2008 and involved only four of the six total Australian FFG’s. The first of these upgraded ships, HMAS Sidney, re-entered service in 2008, but has already been retired and is being scrapped. She was 32 years old when removed from active service. This suggests the Australians paid a billion dollars to get ten more years of life for a quartet of aging ships. Any U.S. reactivation of Perry-class vessels would entail similar costs. The Australian FFG update program took ten years to complete four ships. A U.S. recommissioning of the FFG 7’s “as is” would be accomplished in much less time but to what end? Seven littoral combat ships (LCS) with nearly the same capabilities as the decommissioned Perry’s are already in commission with four more soon to be completed. The Navy would be better served to get the LCS fleet completed and deployed rather than spending additional funds resurrecting a “light destroyer” that was designed in 1970.
There are ways to increase the size of the fleet and ships that can be reactivated for good operational use. The 1980’s “600 ship” Navy included combat logistics and service vessels that are now under the jurisdiction and operation of the Military Sealift Command. Returning these ships to the official fleet strength number will immediately add upwards of 50 ships to the fleet strength. The recently retired fast combat support ships USNS Bridge and USNS Rainier could be reactivated and provide needed logistics support to deployed naval vessels. Their premature retirement on “cost” grounds was a mistake than can be rectified by a Navy seeking to add needed assets.
Warship reactivations are often the subject of general discussion in Congress, and the wider defense community, but few persons understand the complex issues involved in the reactivation of even recently-retired ships. The late British naval architect and historian David K. Brown discussed the Royal Navy’s attempts to modernize aging ships on a limited budget before World War II in his book From Nelson to Vanguard. Brown’s survey of the Royal Navy Constructor’s Notes from the period suggested that a great deal of money and repair efforts were expended on aging ships of limited combat utility. He concluded by saying that not nearly enough old ships were retired before the outbreak of war and that they tied up vital personnel assets needed for new construction. The U.S. Navy cannot afford to make the same error. It is better to leave the Kitty Hawk, the remaining CG 47 class ships and the FFG 7’s in the retired and well-loved ranks rather than spend funds needed for the maintenance of operational vessels and new construction assets.
The service should also issue a comprehensive Naval Strategy for a new era of great power competition. Choices in naval forces structure should be shaped by strategic needs rather than a set number of ships or their tactical employment. Additional ships are always welcome, but they should be the right ships for current and future strategic need and not those of the Cold War past. Any “hard look” at recommissioning old ships should consider these points.
Steven Wills, Ph.D. is a retired Navy surface warfare officer. He graduated from Ohio University with a Ph.D. in Military History.