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The US Navy intends to decommission some of its new warships

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The Navy that once wanted smaller, faster warships to hunt pirates has made a quick pivot to Russia and China — and many of those newly built ships could be retired.

The US Navy wants to decommission nine Freedom-class littoral combat ships – warships that cost an estimated $4.5 billion to build.

The Navy argues in its budget proposal that the move would free up $50 million per ship per year for other priorities. But it would also reduce the size of the fleet already outnumbered by China, which could set members of Congress back.

Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, defended the proposal which emphasizes long-range weapons and modern warships, while getting rid of other ships that are ill-equipped to deal with current threats.

“We need a ready, capable and lethal force more than a larger force that is less ready, less lethal and less capable,” he said Monday at the Sea-Air-Space Symposium of the Navy League in Maryland.

In total, the navy wants to scrap 24 ships, including five cruisers and a pair of Los Angeles-class submarines, as part of the cost-cutting needed to maintain the existing fleet and build modern warships. These reductions exceed the proposed nine ships to be built.

Most of them are older ships. However, the targeted littoral combat ships are young. The oldest of them is 10 years old.

The Navy envisioned fast, highly maneuverable warships capable of operating in near-shore littoral waters when it announced the program months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The ships exceeded 80 km/h (50 mph) – fast enough to drive pirates away – and used steerable water jets instead of conventional propellers.

The ships were meant to be made versatile with plug-and-play mission modules for surface combat, minesweeping operations, or anti-submarine warfare. But those mission modules were plagued with problems and the anti-submarine capability was canceled in the new budget.

And what about that speed? The fastest ship can’t outrun missiles, and turning on those sea turbines for extra speed has turned ships into gas guzzlers, analysts said. Early versions were also criticized as being too lightly armed and armored to survive combat.

The Freedom-class fast ships proposed for decommissioning feature a traditional steel hull. This entire class of ships suffers from a lack of propulsion that will lead to costly repairs. The Navy proposes to retain a second variant, the aluminum Independence class.

U.S. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe said the program had been plagued with problems from the start and that “to move forward, the Navy must avoid similar acquisition disasters.”

U.S. Representative Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, was more outspoken, tweeting that it “sucks” to decommission so many ships, especially newer ones.

“The Navy owes the American taxpayers a public apology for wasting tens of billions of dollars on ships they now say are useless,” she said.

Some critics have proclaimed littoral combat ships to be the Navy’s “Little Crappy Ship,” but that’s not fair, said defense analyst Loren Thompson.

“It’s not a shitty little boat. It does what it was supposed to do. What it was supposed to do is not enough for the kind of threats we face today,” said Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

In naval defense, threats have shifted rapidly from the Cold War to the war on terror to today’s great power competition in which Russia and China are asserting themselves, he said.

Ultimately, the Navy could make do with fewer Freedom-class ships for maritime security and smaller surface combat operations, said Bryan Clark, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute.

Congress must approve the Navy’s proposal to decommission the ships before their expected lifespan.

The House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the proposal.

US Representative Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, suggested the ship cuts were “grossly irresponsible” as the US Navy shrunk from 318 ships to 297, while China’s fleet fell from 210 to 360 ships over the past few years. last two decades.

Milley said it was important to focus on the Navy’s capabilities rather than the size of its fleet.

“I would prioritize capabilities over just numbers,” he said.

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