‘Stark Choices’: US Navy Rethinking Life Extensions for Arleigh Burke Destroyer Fleet

© Flickr / Naval Surface WarriorsAn Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer
An Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer - Sputnik International
In the US Navy’s latest policy whiplash, the service plans to cancel service life extensions on 27 of its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, even though it plans to increase the fleet’s size by more than 20% in the next decade.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts told lawmakers last week that the Navy was facing “stark choices” due to a constraining budget at odds with the Pentagon’s plans for dramatic fleet expansion, and the squeaky wheel is the aging Burke-class guided missile destroyers.

“Service life extensions do add to the size of the fleet, but they kind of just push the cliff to the right,” Geurts told the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee on March 12, noting that “we have got to be cautious you don’t keep extending forever without building because eventually you will run out of the ability to extend, and so it reflected some hard choices we had to make in long-term planning.”

What’s at stake are Flights I and II, the first 27 Arleigh Burke-class ships built for the Navy, the first of which entered service in 1991. The Navy announced a plan in 2018 to extend their 35-year hull lives by 10 years, pushing their retirements back to 2036 at the earliest.

The 8-9,000-ton Burke-class ships are the Navy’s bread-and-butter warships, with 67 in the fleet spending one out of every four days underway, according to Navy Times. Their duties span from fleet escort to submarine hunting, anti-air defense and missile bombardment.

Geurts told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written testimony earlier this month that culling the early Burkes was “the most effective balance between costs and capability.” However, the earliest retirements would not begin until 2026, meaning the material implications of the cuts aren’t yet a part of the service’s five-year Future Years Defense Program that appears in the fiscal year 2021 budget.

It’s the budget, though, that is the rub. As Sputnik previously reported, despite pledging to grow the fleet from 290 to 355 ships by 2030, the Navy’s budget has only increased by 0.9% from last year, leaving the service scrounging around for funds to build its upcoming submarines, for example.

“It’s crazy to throw good money after bad for a bunch of ships you say you don’t need,” Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Defense News earlier this month.

“I think the Navy is coming to grips with the fiscal realities; the unsustainable nature of their current plan; and the recognition it is going to have a need for fewer large surface combatants in the future and needs to husband its resources to build a larger fleet of smaller surface combatants. Those are going to be the bulk of the distributed force they intend to have,” he said.

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