USS Port Royal is one of the most powerful warships in the U.S. Navy, packing 122 vertical missile cells. She’s a rarity—one of just five Aegis cruisers equipped with the technology to shoot down ballistic missiles.
And at just 20 year old, she’s also the youngest of America’s 22 Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers.
Port Royal could have another 20 years of useful service ahead of her. So it’s a mystery why the Navy wants to decommission the 567-foot-long vessel as fast as possible. Especially since a Congress watchdog group insists there’s nothing wrong with the ship.
Besides shooting down ballistic missiles, Port Royal is capable of a whole gamut of missions, including fending off swarms of attacking aircraft, striking enemy surface vessels, hunting submarines and blasting land targets more than 1,000 miles away with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
In her two decades of active service, Port Royal has—so far—faced down China during the third Taiwan Strait crisis, engaged in a standoff with Iranian gunboats and chased Iraqi oil smugglers in the Persian Gulf.
But the Navy wants to get rid of Port Royal. The sailing branch has told Congress that keeping the ship seaworthy through the end of her service life would cost an exorbitant $712 million.
She’s not just getting old, the Navy argues. Port Royal ran into a coral reef off Hawaii in February 2009, causing up to $40 million in damage to the ship’s hull, propellers and underwater sonar dome. This incident gave the warship her unofficial nickname Port Coral.
In 2011, the Navy discovered hull cracks that required another round of repairs. The brass planned to decommission Port Royal as early as March 2013, but ultimately pushed the date back to 2015.
But an April report from the Government Accountability Office—Congress’s independent auditing agency—stated that Port Royal won’t cost any more to fix and upgrade than similar cruisers the Navy is paying to keep afloat.
The collision with the coral reef hasn’t led to any long-term problems, the GAO insists. This is after the Navy’s Sea Systems Command Engineering Directorate, the Pentagon’s Board of Inspection and the American Bureau of Shipping each inspected the vessel.
The Navy Sea Systems report, published last year, claimed the vessel’s “material condition is comparable to other CG-47-class ships that were included in the assessment, and that the manifested effects of the ground in February 2009 are not as extensive as previously believed.”
It’s worth repeating that Port Royal is the youngest Tico cruiser. The Navy factors lifespan into ship costs, so it should in theory save money to keep the Port Royal compared to one of her older sisters. The GAO also found that the Navy could reduce upgrade costs to $406 million if it cut “combat-system modernization upgrades” not planned for other cruisers.
That is, if Port Royal remains in service …
“Unless the Navy reevaluates its decision, it risks prematurely decommissioning a ship that could provide many additional years of service, as well as needed ballistic missile defense capability,” the GAO stated.
For its part, the Navy insists cutting Port Royal—plus six other cruisers and two amphibious docking ships—by 2015 is necessary to save money. The Navy has been short spare parts for years and often must cannibalize ships in order to pass inspections.
At the same time, the Navy is trying to build a new class of ballistic-missile submarines—successors to the Ohio-class boats. It’s also spent billions developing the Littoral Combat Ship, which the Pentagon has criticized for its thin hull and weak armament.
If the Navy is right about Port Royal’s problems, then it might be better to let her go. But retiring a ship that has 20 years left in her doesn’t make much sense. Less so if there’s nothing wrong with her.
There’s also an alternative.
Last month, the Navy proposed a plan that would keep Port Royal in service until 2045—by which point the warship would be positively ancient.
The complicated plan maintains 11 cruisers in active service and another 11 in a deactivated state undergoing upgrade. The Navy would then decommission the first 11 cruisers in 2019, replacing them with the upgraded ships.
It’d be quite a change. America’s youngest cruiser today would one day become America’s oldest cruiser. If the Navy is serious about keeping Port Royal around that long, then it sounds like the sailing branch indeed did overstate the damage from the cruiser’s unlucky run-in with that coral reef.