Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the anti-submarine ships could not perform their primary role.
“I refuse to pay an extra dollar for a system that can’t track a high-end submarine in today’s environment,” Gilday told the committee. The main reason he gave for the early retirement was that the anti-submarine system on the ships “didn’t work technically”. Decommissioning the ships would save the Navy about $391 million, according to the service’s proposed FY23 budget.
But that’s only a fraction of the cost of the nine littoral ships, which totaled about $3.2 billion.
The USS Indianapolis, USS Billings, and USS Wichita all entered service in 2019, meaning the Navy plans to retire ships that have only seen a fraction of their expected useful lives. The Navy also plans to decommission six more littoral ships, all of the Freedom single-hull variant, as opposed to the Independence trimaran variant. Both variants can reach speeds of over 40 knots.
According to a 2016 Navy plan, all Freedom-class variants were based in Mayport, Florida, primarily for Atlantic operations. The variants of the Independence-class were based in San Diego and intended primarily for operations in the Pacific.
The decision comes down to an embarrassing admission that some of the Navy’s newest ships are unfit for modern warfare.
Despite the Navy’s plans to scrap the warships, Congress has final say over the military budget and has resisted previous requests to decommission ships. Reducing the number of warships could be even more difficult as lawmakers focus on the growing size of China’s navy and the gap between the US and Chinese fleets.
But the embattled coastal battleships face constant problems, including repeated breakdowns and questions about their limited armament.
The ships have been hailed as part of the US deterrent against China as they were designed to operate in shallow waters such as the South China Sea. But the decommissioning of so many in a year seems like confirmation that the pricey surface fighters have not lived up to expectations.
“We can’t use them”
Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said: “We can’t use them, number one, because they’re unwilling to do anything. Number two, when they are, they still break down.”
“They are incredibly expensive and don’t have the capabilities that we expected. So no matter how old they are, that’s a lot of money to spend to get pretty much nothing,” the Washington state Democrat continued.
Republican Senator from Oklahoma Jim Inhofe, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed the criticism of the Navy.
Many of the myriad problems facing the coastal combat ship program stem from a lack of mission orientation during the design process, said Emma Salisbury, a researcher at the University of London who focuses on US military weapons manufacturers.
“The LCS has essentially been counted on to solve every single problem the Navy has at once, and everything will be wonderful,” Salisbury told CNN with a touch of irony. Missions for the ships included surface warfare, mine countermeasures, and anti-submarine warfare, based on a modular design intended to allow the Navy to customize the ship for the role.
“It was basically this magical design that would solve everything,” Salisbury said. “So that was the problem — because it had all these options, it never did any of them very well.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby defended the program and ships at a press conference in mid-April, saying they “served a purpose.”
But while the Navy plans to scrap nine of the Freedom variant ships, the newest ship in the class was christened just last weekend. The USS Beloit marked the milestone with members of Congress and Navy officials in attendance and the ceremonial breaking of a wine bottle forward of the bow.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said in a statement the ship is “ready to respond to any mission, wherever and whenever necessary.”
“The issue was identified following routine quality assurance reviews and does not pose a risk to the safety of seafarers aboard the ships. Likewise, the issue does not pose a safety risk to the affected ships, nor does it impede the ability to put to sea and carry out missions,” said Baribeau.
The Navy plans to retire two of these Independence-class ships in fiscal year 2024.
At the same time, the Navy is working on developing a new class of ships better suited to the challenges posed by China’s rapidly expanding military and the threat posed by Russia. These ships have “more capability than the LCS” for potential future combat, Kirby said.
On Thursday, Gilday said the Navy is not “big” to fight two wars at once. When Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, asked Gilday if the US Navy under US European Command’s area of responsibility could “meet its operational needs” if the US also had to use naval vessels to deter China, Gilday replied, “I think we would be challenged.”
“Right now the force is not large enough to handle two simultaneous conflicts. It’s big enough to fight one and keep a second opponent at bay, but in terms of two full-scale conflicts, we’re not big for that,” Gilday added.
The US currently has 298 Battle Force ships, according to its latest budget request, and will add nine or more ships each year for the next five years. But due to the Navy’s plans to scrap so many ships, the size of the fleet is expected to drop to 280 ships during that time.