Navy Considers Reactivating Mothballed Warships

The carrier Kitty Hawk, second from left, alongside Independence, Constellation and Ranger at NISMF Bremerton

Published Jun 8, 2017 9:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a recent interview with defense industry outlet DefAero Report, NAVSEA commander Vice Adm. Thomas Moore raised the possibility that the Navy could reactivate mothballed ships as part of its plan to build up to a 355-vessel fleet. Among the candidates are the remaining Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and a number of the combat logistics ships, with an outside chance for the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk – the Navy's last conventionally-fueled flat-top. 

"We'll go look at the [Oliver Hazard Perry-class] if there's utility there, we'll go look at some of the combat logistics force ships  . . . probably of the carriers that are in inactive status right now, Kitty Hawk is the one that you could think about," Moore said. "The carriers are pretty old, so I think there's limited opportunity in the inactive fleet to bring those back but we're going to go look at that ship by ship and put that into the mix." The first hulls in the Ticonderoga class of guided missile cruisers are off the table. "Most of those ships are obsolete and they've kind of been spare parts lockers for the last couple years," Moore said. 

The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and many of the ex-U.S. Navy hulls are still in service with other armed forces around the world, including the navies of Pakistan, Turkey, Poland, Egypt and Bahrain. Australia, Spain and Taiwan liked the design enough to build their own, and over a dozen foreign-built Perry-class ships are still in active service. The U.S. Navy retains about one dozen inactive Perry-class hulls in its Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facilities, several of which are candidates for foreign military sales. Many current operators have modified their Perry-class frigates, re-engining with Cat 3512B diesels, adding SM-2 missiles, Mk-41 vertical launch systems and improved radars. Several American politicians have called for the Navy to take the same approach. 

The Perry class has one notable advantage: they are notoriously hard to sink. USS Stark survived two Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi warplane in 1987, and USS Samuel B. Roberts managed to stay afloat after striking an Iranian mine the following year, despite severe damage. Both vessels were repaired and returned to service. In a live-fire exercise in 2016, the decommissioned USS Thatch absorbed four Harpoon anti-ship missiles; one Maverick missile; multiple Hellfire missiles; one 2,000 lb. bomb; one 500 lb. bomb; and one Mk. 48 torpedo. She stayed afloat for 12 hours (with calm weather, and without fuel or munitions aboard). 

Extending service life

In a recent speech, Vice Adm. Moore also raised the possibility of extending the service life of active vessels as a strategy to enlarge the fleet – so long as the Navy can commit to a regular and consistent maintenance schedule. "We’re taking a pretty close look at what it would take to get them out another five, another 10 years . . . And people will say, well we’ve never really gotten a surface ship past 35 or 40 years, and I will point out all the time that we routinely take aircraft carriers to 50 years," he said. "And the reason we do that is because we consistently do all the maintenance you have to do on an aircraft carrier to get it to 50 years. So we know how to do this." Moore suggested that by extending vessel service life out by one or two more drydocking availabilities, the Navy could reach the 355-ship mark by 2030-2035 at a relatively economical cost. 

Moore restricted his comments to steel-hulled vessels. "What happens over 25 years? Aluminum doesn’t quite have the tensile strength, so you’ll have a little bit more flexibility in the hull. We’ve seen this with some of the cracking in the cruise superstructures," he said. The Navy is currently building a series of 13 aluminum-hulled Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships, and the fourth vessel in the class – LCS 8, USS Montgomery – suffered a crack in her hull after colliding with a tugboat last October. Moore did not reference this incident, but he said that "we’ll proceed a little bit more cautiously on extending the service life of aluminum ships than we will steel-hulled ones.”