The Depot

24 Navy Ships the U.S. Navy Wants to Decommission

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans

The Navy wants to decommission 24 Navy ships in 2023. The move could save up to $3.6 billion over the next five years.

On the chopping block for fiscal year 2023 and slated for decommissioning are nine Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), five Ticonderoga-class cruisers, two Los Angeles-class submarines, four Landing Dock Ships, two Henry J. Kaiser-class oilers and two expeditionary transfer docks. The Navy said by decommissioning the ships, it will free the service branch of extensive costly repairs and maintenance to the Navy ships that are being removed from service.

A large part of this move is the scrapping of LCS Navy ships which have been plagued with problems and program costs overruns since inception. LCS Navy ships were supposed to be a multi-role vessel, capable of carrying out a variety of surface missions.

The LCS Navy ships were supposed to be a small surface vessel that could operate in coastal environments. But reports came to light that the ship couldn’t survive hostile fire and it did not pass the Navy’s shock trials in testing.

When the LCS Navy ships deployed, they had engineering issues, equipment failures, and system outages. To date, only one of the three planned LCS Navy ships missions, surface warfare, has come to fruition. The mine countermeasures mission is in partial use in the Pacific.

The final of the three missions expected of the LCS Navy ships was the anti-submarine warfare missions, but because the not-yet-built future Constellation-class frigates will perform anti-submarine warfare, it made the decision to drop the LCS class of Navy ships that much easier for Navy officials even though the first Constellation-class frigates won’t be delivered until 2026, and the new Navy ships won’t be fully operational until 2030.

U.S. Navy graphic

U.S. Navy officials said that the 2023 budget request met the priorities of the National Defense Strategy, as well as the Navy secretary’s strategic objectives, and chief of naval operations readiness, modernization, and capacity requirements.

A few years ago, the U.S. Navy announced that it needed 355 manned Navy ships by 2050 to fulfill its global missions. That’s an increase of 47 ships from the current 308 in the fleet.

There are only nine Navy ships planned for future construction and 298 battle-force Navy ships in service today. The nine Navy ships will cost around $25 billion, a little more than 10 percent of the budget. 

Of the 24 Navy ships slated for decommissioning, 16 Navy ships, that’s more than 66 percent of them, are not near their service lives. Nine of the 16 Navy ships are from the LCS class that has proven to be problematic. Sailors have dubbed the LCS Navy ships, “Little Crappy Ships.”

The cruisers designated for decommissioning include Lake Champlain, Vicksburg, Bunker Hill, Mobile Bay, and San Jacinto. It’s important to note that the Vicksburg just completed a multi-million-dollar modernization rebuild. All LCS Navy ships in the Freedom-class have been marked for retirement.

The LCS Navy ships marked for decommissioning are the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3), USS Milwaukee (LCS-5), USS Detroit (LCS-7), USS Little Rock (LCS-9), USS Sioux City (LCS-11), USS Wichita (LCS-13), USS Billings (LCS-15), USS Indianapolis (LCS 17) and USS St. Louis (LCS-19).

U.S. Navy photo

When the LCS Navy ships were being developed, the Navy contracted with two builders, and each made different hull designs for the LCS class Navy ships.

The Los Angeles-class attack submarines, USS Providence and USS Oklahoma City, are likely candidates to be recycled and their materials repurposed. The dock landing Navy ships will possibly be placed in reserve. Those Navy ships include the Whidbey Island, Germantown, Gunston Hall, Ashland, and the Carter Hall.

The two oilers, the John Lenthal and the Walter S. Diehl Navy ships, like some of the LCS ships, have previously been marked for decommissioning. Congress has a habit of stepping in and preventing Navy ships decommissioning.

It’s important to note that each of the nine Freedom-class Navy ships would cost the Navy $50 million per year and add limited value to the battle-force. The Constellation-class Navy ships will be more rugged, durable and bettered-engineered than the LCS Navy ships.

Whether or not the U.S. Congress will step in and save these ships is to be seen. Ships have been saved from the scrapyard before, fueled by politics. However, Congress, like the Navy, bears a great deal of responsibility in this debacle, especially when it comes to the LCS Navy ships. Congress, after all, was where the funding came from for the LCS program and once the program went south and Navy officials warned of issues with the LCS Navy ships program, Congress moved forward with the program anyway, insisting it not be shut down over the Navy’s recommendations.

For now, if the ships are headed to decommissioning, there are a variety of fates that await. These Navy ships can be placed on “Out of Commission in Reserve,” or OCIR, status. They remain on the Navy’s vessel register for possible future use, stored at one of three Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facilities in Washington (state), Hawaii, and Philadelphia. The Ticonderoga-class cruisers and LCS Navy ships on tap for decommissioning are slated for one of these maritime boneyards.  

Others might end their service as targets for other fleet Navy ships to conduct target practice on them in a Sinking Exercise, also known as a SINKEX. It is the ship’s final mission and a way for it to serve the Navy one last time.

The last two Navy ships to be targeted and sunk as of this writing was the USS Vandegrift which was sunk in June 2022 and the USS Rodney M. Davis which sank in July 2022. Both were put down in the Pacific. A SINKEX is a bittersweet moment for sailors and officers who have served aboard these ships, especially for plank owners.

Still image from U.S. Navy video

The submarines are scheduled for recycling, which means they’ll likely be cannibalized, broken down and likely sold for scrap. The two Navy ships that are oilers are likewise earmarked for disassembly and repurposing. 

In the past, the Navy has sold Navy ships that were decommissioned ships to friendly, foreign militaries, but none of the 24 slated for decommissioning are marked for foreign sale. 

Four of the ships on the decommissioning list are dock landing Navy ships that deploy with Amphibious Ready Groups which carry Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU). MEUs conduct training, humanitarian assistance and support missions around the world and Marines have always contended that the number of amphibious capable Navy ships is not enough. Last year, the Navy was forced to decommission the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard after a 2020 onboard fire.

While the Navy touts the fiscal savings involved in decommissioning these 24 Navy ships, and the Congress points fingers, U.S. taxpayers are left with the tab. The LCS program’s initial budget was $15 billion and that does not include the cost overruns that have led to the development and manufacturing of Navy ships that can do almost nothing.

Navy officials have complained that the ships have horrible histories of reliability and when they are operational, the ships cannot perform the missions that are expected of them. In addition, six of the LCS ships have developed structural cracks that require repair.

Defense industry experts cite that the LCS program’s problems came to fruition because the ship was expected to be a catch all for the Navy. It was expected to perform a wide array of missions because of its modularity.

This is an interesting approach to shipbuilding given that sailors are themselves occupational specialists, and yet somehow the ships they’ve been put on are supposed to do it all.

U.S. Navy Drone Ships: Unmanned Ships of the Future

U.S. Navy photo

Not long ago, an unmanned aerial drone took out the leader and one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks as he stood outside on a balcony in Afghanistan. There are hundreds of similar stories where a remotely piloted aircraft has engaged ground targets or provided support in the airspace above a battlefield.

All the military branches fly some type of aerial drone, and some branches have explored unmanned land vehicles to help with battlefield surveillance, recon, weapons delivery and bomb disposal.

The applicability of drones in various combat spaces seems endless, so it is no surprise that US Navy drone ships are actually a thing. In fact, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations’ Navigation Plan 2022 calls for 373 manned ships and 150 unmanned ships for a total of 523 ships by 2045.

The plan is for US Navy drone ships to be a part of a hybrid fleet alongside of manned ships. However, these are unchartered waters for the Navy, and they are decades behind proven drone programs like the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft program.

Nonetheless, US Navy drone ships are being pushed, as the future of maritime forces, albeit carefully. The Navy is singing the praises of uncrewed maritime platforms that could conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capability that will keep sailors safe. US Navy drone ships, the Navy believes, will increase lethality, capacity, survivability, operational tempo, deterrence, and operational readiness.

U.S. Navy Photo

The primary US Navy drone ships are the unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned undersea vessels (UUVs). For fiscal year 2023, the Navy requested $104 million for research and development of the USVs and almost $147 million for large USVs.

The large US Navy drone ships will be larger than a patrol craft and smaller than a frigate. The medium US Navy drone ships can be equipped with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads and electronic warfare systems. The Navy is also requesting $284 million for research and development of UUVs and $60.7 million for support technologies.

Extra-large US Navy drone ships, UUVs, could lay mines, and carry out other types of missions. The Navy currently has the Orca UUV which is the first US Navy drone ship UUV.

In the past, the Navy has utilized smaller unmanned systems, and this will continue, according to the Navy, but US Navy drone ships will not include those smaller robotic systems that are in place and in use now.

Many of those portable systems are deployed from small boats for ISR, countermine operations, or other taskings.

“To execute its strategy, the Navy needs to make significant investments in the development of technologies to enable these uncrewed maritime systems to operate both autonomously (or semi-autonomously) as well as in conjunction with the existing fleet. As a result, the Navy is embarking on a robust effort intended to rapidly develop and field uncrewed maritime system prototypes and overcome technical challenges prior to acquiring these systems in significant numbers,” a Government Accounting Office paper said.

However, building US Navy drone ships isn’t the real problem. Technology that operates these autonomous vessels is unproven and the Navy sees the risk. US Navy drone ships will require massive capacity to manage the amount of data required to operate a ship in the open ocean. Keep in mind, the Navy in recent years has had multiple collisions with manned ships; the natural deduction is that US Navy drone ships will be more at risk of adverse events.

To work through all of the potential issues with US Navy drone ships, the Navy established an Unmanned Task Force to solve operational challenges. Not long thereafter, a separate task force was set up with the Navy’s Fifth Fleet to develop artificial intelligence solutions and to conduct trials with unmanned US Navy drone ships.

Several Navy exercises, like International Maritime Exercise 22, have explored the technology used in US Navy drone ships and the Navy has been testing the sea capability of different vessels like the Sea Hunter, to sail long distances without a crew.

In the near future, US Navy drone ships will likely evolve into minimally manned ships instead of unmanned vessels. Part of the evolving nature of the US Navy drone ships program is that it will take time to refine the technology and there will have to be sailors on board to take corrective actions if something fails.

Unfazed by the work ahead, the Navy sees the possibility of deploying US Navy drone ships with strike groups and amphibious elements by the late 2020s. How many US Navy drone ships American naval forces will need to fight America’s wars on the seas is to be determined.  

For now, US Navy drone ships are experimenting with sensors and electronic payloads. And US Navy drone ships like the Sea Hunter are working with the USS Anchorage at the moment.

In order for US Navy drone ships to become the large, mission enhancing power projection platforms of the future, the Navy needs to continue to build robust smaller vessels to refine the data management and AI on board.

Eventually, the US Navy will send these unmanned systems into battle to perform a variety of dangerous tasks. Because they are unmanned, they will likely have long loitering times.