San Diego Union-Tribune

November 23, 2001 

Navy may mothball entire Spruance class of destroyers
   Move could put fleet below standard readiness level


WASHINGTON -- The Navy is considering early retirement of its 24 Spruance-class destroyers, which could drop the fleet below what has been considered the minimum level despite increasing demands for warships, Navy Secretary Gordon England said

The destroyers, including five based in San Diego, might be cut to make money available for other programs, such as fixing the problems of aging naval aircraft, England said in an interview at his Pentagon office.

The secretary said the proposal to retire the Spruance-class destroyers early is based on a judgment that this class of ship "does not provide us with the combat power commensurate with the cost."

The destroyers, which are 20 to 25 years old, had been
scheduled for decommissioning between 2006 and 2011, a Navy official said. Now there is a proposal to phase them out during what is called the "future-year defense plan," which covers the next six years, the official said.

Although the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Spruance class's future is still being studied, England made it sound as if the decision to retire them early has been made.

Some Navy officers have said cutting 24 ships from the existing fleet of 310 could drop the force below its readiness level. The Navy has said the minimum needed to meet operational demands is 305 to 310 ships.

Vice Adm. Timothy LaFleur, commander of surface forces in the Pacific, said recently that the demand for surface warships is growing with the war on terrorism. He expressed concern that his ships and sailors could suffer from the strain.

England said that if the Spruance-class destroyers are retired early, the fleet might dip as low as 286 ships, though not for long.

But the official said the plans indicate the fleet will drop to 303 ships in 2005, and then start climbing.

In a separate development, the president of the American Shipbuilding Association said the Navy's proposals for the future-year budgets "fail to provide for even the bare-bones minimum 305-ship force" called for in the last two quadrennial defense reviews.

The long-term budget plan would "perpetuate the fleet's dive toward 180 ships," said the association's Cynthia Brown in a statement. Brown said the six-year plan calls for building only four ships a year when 10 a year are required to stop the sharp drop in the fleet.

England said the decision to retire the Spruance-class destroyers does not mean the Navy will cut its surface warfare force, and noted the plan to revise the DD-21 program to provide a larger, more varied group of warships.

The secretary said the money now spent on the Spruance destroyers would be used for other urgent Navy needs.

"The real problem we have today is with naval air," he said. The average age of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft is higher than those of the ships, and that means extra money spent on maintenance, he said.

England, who recently visited Navy and Marine forces in the Arabian Sea, said "the mobility and firepower of carriers have been demonstrated again" with the air attacks into Afghanistan.

The current operations "provide a clear look into the future" as far as what forces are needed "when we don't have land bases," he added.

Carrier-based fighters and long-range Air Force bombers have done most of the bombing in Afghanistan because neighboring nations have not allowed use of their bases by U.S. warplanes.