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In the 20-year life of the cruiser USS Port Royal, based at Pearl Harbor, some of the warship’s battles have been fought at home, some with the environment and some with the Navy itself.
After a bad grounding incident in 2009 off Honolulu Airport’s Reef Runway, the Navy repeatedly tried to retire the newest cruiser of the Ticonderoga class, and Congress repeatedly pushed back.
The latest victory goes to the Port Royal, sort of.
The Navy has agreed to keep it in its inventory, but in a “laid up” status along with 10 other cruisers, including the two others at Pearl Harbor, the USS Lake Erie and USS Chosin, officials said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Feb. 24 that as part of “difficult choices” the Pentagon faces with budget cuts, 11 of 22 cruisers in the fleet would be placed on reduced operating status while they are modernized and eventually returned to the fleet.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report this month that the halving of the fleet would involve placing the 11 newest cruisers, including the Port Royal, into a long-term phased modernization plan starting in fiscal 2015.
The Navy would then reactivate the upgraded ships on a one-for-one basis as the 11 oldest cruisers reach their expected service life.
Under the plan, the Navy would bring the semimothballed Port Royal back into active service in 2026, when it retires the USS Chancellorsville, the GAO said. The Port Royal would remain on active duty through 2044 — 15 years longer than its expected service life.
Insidedefense.com recently reported on a top Navy official saying the plan to lay up cruisers would save more than $6 billion.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress likely will oppose the Navy’s latest plan to retire the cruisers, just as it has done with similar plans in recent years.
Hanabusa said the Navy is trying to characterize ship reductions as modernizations.
The retirement of the cruisers, “which is what I expected the modernization to really mean, is going to be detrimental for us in the Pacific,” Hanabusa said in a phone interview. “In addition, of course, we home-port three of them (at Pearl Harbor) and they are fine. There is nothing wrong with them. They’ve been repaired and they are functioning. So why do we want to do this?”
Hanabusa maintains that some of the funding for the war in Afghanistan could possibly be reprogrammed to support the cruisers with the war rapidly winding down.
“We’re going to have to figure this out,” she said.
Lt. Robert Myers, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service is “working closely with Congress on a proposal that preserves our readiness within a constrained fiscal environment.”
The Navy’s proposal “will achieve our end goal of returning these ships to the fleet with greater capability and a longer service life,” he said.
The USS Chosin, another of the cruisers at Pearl Harbor, completed major maintenance in March 2012 at a cost of $107.1 million, the Navy said.
The April GAO report specifically addresses the 567-foot Port Royal.
The Navy assumed the 2009 grounding had created hidden maintenance problems and that a midlife upgrade would be expensive, so the decision was made to retire the ship, the GAO said.
But a 2013 Navy review of the $1 billion warship, ordered by Congress, found its material condition similar to other cruisers. The GAO, told by Congress to review those findings, concurred.
“GAO found that, in terms of its estimated service life and capabilities, the Port Royal has some advantages,” the investigative arm of Congress said. “The ship is the youngest cruiser in its class and has more service life remaining than any other cruiser. The Port Royal also has some key capabilities that many of the Navy’s other cruisers lack, including a ballistic missile defense capability that is highly sought after by combatant commanders.”
The Port Royal is one of just five cruisers with ballistic missile shoot-down capability, the agency said.
The cruiser ran aground and was stuck for four days in shallow water off Honolulu Airport’s Reef Runway in 2009, causing significant damage to the ship and reef.
A total of $18 million was spent on refurbishment before the warship ran aground, $40 million on fixes after the grounding and more than $20 million in 2010 and 2011 to deal with cracks in the Port Royal’s aluminum alloy superstructure, a problem identified on all Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
The Navy previously indicated the Port Royal had never completely recovered from the grounding, but never provided “adequate analysis” as to how, a House report said.
The Navy tried to retire the Port Royal in fiscal 2013 and 2015, according to the GAO.
The Naval Sea Systems Command, which conducted the earlier assessment, said in its 2013 report that the expected life of the Port Royal, commissioned in 1994, was 35 years.
The GAO found that the Navy overestimated the cost for the next modernization of the Port Royal by $306 million and concluded the upgrades would cost $406 million.
“On the basis of current information, the Navy’s plan to decommission the Port Royal is not aligned with decommissioning requirements,” the GAO said.
The Navy subsequently decided to place the Port Royal in its phased modernization with the other newer cruisers, the GAO said.