US combat ships try to stay afloat amid billions in budget cuts

With US$500m shaved off the Pentagon's budget, a vessel like the Blue Ridge, already 43 years old, must keep running for decades more

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:42am

Consider this a tale of two ships - one old, one new and both reflective of the budgetary problems now facing the US Navy as it faces a decade of cuts.

Hong Kong this weekend plays host to the USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the US Seventh Fleet and one of the navy's oldest vessels. Steaming to Singapore, meanwhile, is its newest - the USS Freedom, the first of the new so-called littoral combat ships to be based there, designed for speed, stealth and shallow water.

The Blue Ridge's commanding officer, Captain Will Pennington, said his crew was working hard to prepare the vessel for a major inspection in May - all part of a plan to keep the 43-year-old ship running for another 30 years. That means the storied Blue Ridge - a veteran of the first Gulf war and the evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 could be over 70 by the time it is finally scrapped.

The Japan-based vessel is already the US Navy's oldest forward-deployed ship, not having returned to the US since 1979. Preparing for the inspection is hard work, Pennington said, "for a ship as old as this one is".

Essentially a floating remote command platform for the entire Seventh Fleet - the core projection of US power across Asia - the ship's communications and radar systems are state-of-the-art even if its strong hull and heavy brass fittings speak to another age. "They just don't build them like this anymore," one officer said. "The brass just lasts and lasts - the key is what is in there," he added, pointing to the nest of radar domes on the decks.

Not even the navy's newest ship, however, can escape the pressures of the US$500 billion that must be shaved off the Pentagon's budgets over the next decade in a programme of cuts that started this weekend. How the US Navy copes with the cuts is being closely watched across the region - by a Beijing increasingly leery of being contained by the US and by American allies and partners relying on Washington as a counter-balance to China's military rise.

The USS Freedom heads from San Diego to Singapore amid a continuing debate about the role of the littoral combat ships and their expenses. The ships are designed to be swiftly outfitted to cope with a wide range of demands, from submarine hunting to destroying mines or humanitarian missions. Stealthy and fast - they are capable of 40 knots - they are designed to gradually replace the work of ageing frigates and operate in shallow waters. The Freedom is expected to arrive in Singapore in mid-April after stops in Guam and Hawaii.

Two different types of vessels are being produced in two different shipyards, with costs soaring to US$400 million per vessel, while naval strategists are still figuring out how best to deploy them. Private US naval analysts are questioning their ability to withstand a direct hit while others ponder their support costs, Bloomberg reported last week.

"You look at the LCS and all the problems it's had and what appears to be a limited upside - that certainly looks like an attractive target for cuts," said Ben Freeman, a national security expert at the Washington watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight.

While the PLA has no similar ship to the Freedom, one private PLA analyst said it was not big enough to "spook" Beijing, unlike the larger US destroyers, with their Aegis battle systems. The ships would be used mostly to support US alliances in Asia, rather than pose a new operational threat. "The LCS remains a bit of an oddball," he said.