WASHINGTON—The Pentagon has dropped a plan to retire one of its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers after the White House intervened to head off a brewing political fight.
The military had proposed an early retirement of the USS George Washington, reducing the U.S. carrier fleet to 10, as part of plan to deal with cost cuts imposed by Congress. That touched a nerve among a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a letter last week to block the move and preserve what they argued is a potent symbol of American power.
The behind-the-scenes battle illustrates how politics often complicates the task of wringing savings from the U.S. military budget. Lawmakers, facing pressures from defense contractors and local communities, often oppose proposed cuts to military bases, aircraft and shipbuilding programs and weapons systems.
Last year, a strategic review by Mr. Hagel on the impact of the mandated across-the-board spending cuts found the U.S. could reduce the carrier fleet to eight or nine—still enough to equal the number of carriers operated world-wide by seven other nations.
But as the controversy began to build about taking the first step in that process, it became clear that any proposal endorsed by the White House to retire an aircraft carrier likely would have been blocked by Congress, opening Democrats to election-year criticism, officials familiar with the discussions said.
White House officials headed off the issue by telling defense officials in recent days that they would provide extra money—in effect raising the military's proposed budget—to allow the Navy to extend the life of the George Washington, commissioned on July 4, 1992. While actual spending levels are set by Congress, requests such as these from the White House generally are backed by lawmakers.
Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can have a 50-year life span, but require midlife refueling and refurbishing that can take three to five years. The George Washington—whose flight deck is 1,092 feet long and 275 feet wide, covering 4.5 acres—is due for its midlife refueling and overhaul in 2016, at a cost of about $4.7 billion, according to Navy officials.
Defense Department officials currently are negotiating final elements of the Pentagon budget with the White House Office of Management and Budget, ahead of next month's release of the administration's budget proposal for fiscal 2015. The offer of additional money to pay for the refueling in 2016 came as part of those discussions, though it wasn't clear where White House officials planned to get the extra funds. Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The Budget Control Act of 2011, which included a provision for across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that went into effect last year, called for the Pentagon to cut nearly $1 trillion from its budget over a decade. Last year's budget deal reduced this year's portion of the cuts by about $30 billion, but the relentless search for military cost savings continues.
That makes the cost of maintaining and operating aircraft carriers and their sizable strike groups—consisting of support vessels and warships—a tempting target for cuts to Pentagon officials. Retiring older carriers and reducing operating costs would free up money to invest in modernized weapons and ships, officials said.
Four Washington think tanks that examined the Pentagon budget recommended reducing the size of the carrier fleet, arguing at a briefing this week that money would be better spent modernizing the U.S. submarine fleet. Both the conservative American Enterprise Institute and more liberal Center for a New American Security backed carrier reductions.
Bryan Clark, a defense analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it makes sense to reduce the fleet by one or two carriers and invest in new submarines or stealthy aircraft and bombers. But he said far more money could be saved by slowing procurement of new Ford-class carriers, which require fewer crew members and can launch planes more quickly, rather than retiring the George Washington 25 years early.
Current plans call for the Navy to build one of these new carriers every five years, at a cost of about $13 billion each.
The first, the USS Gerald Ford is being built in Newport News, Va., by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., HII +1.31% the only company building nuclear-powered carriers. Its costs have risen about 22% over original estimates. Initial work has begun on a second, the USS John F. Kennedy.
Other defense analysts believe the Pentagon should allow the overall size of the fleet to shrink through the retirement of older carriers, but continue to build more modernized carriers. "Once you break the production of carriers, you will not have a carrier industrial base," said David Berteau, a defense analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The George Washington differs in one key respect from other weapons programs slated by the Pentagon for cuts but defended by Congress: Some in the Pentagon wanted to keep the George Washington in service. One military official said the carrier could have been placed into dry-dock under the original Navy proposal with the hope that Congress would ease some of the spending cuts, eventually allowing it back into service.
In Congress, carriers have fierce defenders on both sides of the political aisle—especially in Virginia, where carriers are built.
"The aircraft carrier remains the centerpiece of American sea power and is fundamental to a national security policy based on forward deployed presence and power," said Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.). Added Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, also from Virginia: "A decision to go from an 11 to 10 carrier Navy would be seen by our allies and potential opponents around the globe as a kind of retrenchment that would not be helpful."
During the Reagan administration's defense buildup, the Navy grew to 15 aircraft carriers. The number of carriers was reduced to 14 in 1992 and stood at 12 between 1994 and 2007. In 2007, the number of ships was reduced to 11 with the decommissioning of the first USS John F. Kennedy.
Currently, the Navy carrier fleet technically stands at 10 ships, because the USS Enterprise was retired in 2012 and the Gerald Ford won't begin operations until next year.
Retiring the George Washington also would be expensive—about $1.2 billion. But the Navy would still have saved $3.5 billion in refueling and overhaul costs and would have saved millions more in operating costs.
According to the Navy, operating an older Nimitz-class aircraft carrier costs $402 million a year, not including its air wing or escort ships. Much of the expense, $250 million, is the cost of staffing the ships.
Some defense officials have argued that carriers aren't nearly as important as they once were. The development of antiship missiles has made aircraft carriers more vulnerable, and reduced their utility.
At the same time a new generation of big-deck amphibious ships, the America class, function much like medium-size carriers. While they can't do everything that the nuclear-powered supercarriers can do, the development of new unmanned aircraft and tilt-rotor aircraft has the promise of making the smaller ships more versatile.
"We can project power from smaller ships," said Nora Bensahel, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security.