The Navy’s New Cruiser Is … the Navy’s Old Cruiser

New plan has today’s big warships sailing until 2045

The U.S. Navy’s 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers have been its biggest and most heavily-armed surface combatant warships since the mid-1980s. For years, the sailing branch tried and failed to design an even more powerful ship to replace the Ticos, but the high cost proved prohibitive.

Now the Navy has finally identified its next cruisers. They’re the same cruisers as today, upgraded for a quarter-billion dollars apiece as part of a complicated plan that sees the last Tico finally leaving the fleet in 2045—at which point the vessel will have been in commission for a staggering 51 years.

Historically, most American warships retire after 30 years or so.

The cruiser scheme, included in the Navy’s new five-year spending plan, is indicative of the sailing branch’s inability to develop new warships—and its desperation to keep up fleet numbers as it tries to counter an aggressive Russia and a rising China.

USS Chancellorsville. Navy photo

The forever cruisers

The Navy developed the Ticonderoga class in the 1970s to carry the new Aegis air-defense system—a highly-automated radar guiding long-range Standard surface-to-air missiles. The Navy needed to be able to fire off lots of accurate missiles quickly in order to stop volleys of Soviet anti-ship missiles.

Together, Bath Iron Works and Ingalls Shipbuilding assembled 27 Ticonderogas between 1980 and 1994 for $1 billion apiece in then-dollars. The first five of the 567-foot-long vessels each had a pair of twin-arm missile launchers—these ships decommissioned in 2004 and 2005. The remaining 22 ships have 122 vertical-launch cells compatible with a variety of anti-air, anti-submarine and land-attack cruise missiles.

In recent years, the Navy has modified five of the cruisers with new software and high-tech SM-3 missiles for shooting down incoming ballistic rockets, like the kind North Korea could use to lob nuclear warheads.

After the Ticos, the Navy began acquiring Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that have roughly the same radars and weapons as the cruisers but are slightly smaller. Today the sailing branch has 62 Burkes, with more on the way. The sea service tinkered with a next-generation cruiser design it called the CG(X), but planners couldn’t justify the new ships’ $3.5-billion-apiece price tag. The Navy kept buying Burkes, instead.

In 2012 the sailing branch proposed decommissioning seven Ticos, but Congress blocked the move—and insisted the sea service keep all 22 cruisers for 35 years each. But the Navy balked at the high cost of keeping the aging vessels up to date and fully manned with more than 300 sailors each.

So this year, planners found a work-around, one that saves money and keeps the cruisers in service for decades longer than anyone originally imagined. If Congress allows it, the Navy will keep 11 of the cruisers in active service and dock the other 11 without crews for an extended period of leisurely technological enhancement.

The proposed plan keeps the 11 oldest cruisers at sea until 2019. At that point, one or two of the older Ticos will decommission every year, with one or two upgraded Ticos returning to service to replace them. The formerly laid-up cruisers will stick around until they, too, begin leaving the fleet one or two at a time starting in 2035.

The “youngest” cruiser, the 1994-vintage USS Port Royal, will finally bow out in 2045, by which time she could be one of the oldest active warships in the world. “What we wanted to do was make sure we got the most ship years out of this class of ship,” said Adm. Jon Greenert, the Navy’s top officer.

USS Antietam. Navy photo

Up to snuff

Even before the complicated 11-11 plan, the Navy was working on updating the cruisers. A 2011 presentation by Scott Hale, then the Navy’s deputy program manager for surface combatants, lays out a bewildering mix of modifications stretching into 2017. The current split plan seems to delay some enhancements until the 2020s.

Basically all of the cruisers get structural tweaks plus computer upgrades, fresh fiber-optic cabling and improvements to their radar, sonar, cannon-aiming system, defense guns, missile launchers and helicopter facilities. The Navy spends around $250 million to enhance each ship.

Nine of the Ticos also receive the new Ballistic Missile Defense 5.0 software, which is compatible with a more powerful missile interceptor. It’s impossible to say what other upgrades the 11 younger cruisers might get in the 2030s and 2040s, when they will still have years of service ahead of them.

“A modernized Aegis cruiser is among the most powerful and capable warships the world has ever created,” Byran McGrath, a defense consultant, told The question is, will it still be so powerful and capable when it’s more than 50 years old?

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