Attrition: Two Cents Worth


May 19, 2014: An old aircraft isn’t worth much these days. For example, two decades ago the U.S. Navy decommissioned its four largest non-nuclear powered aircraft carriers. Unable to find anyone willing or able to use these vessels as museum ships, the navy is now selling them for a penny each to American breakers (shipyards that dismantle old ships and recycle or neutralize the components). The USS Forrestal was sold in 2013 and now the USS Saratoga has been disposed of the same way. The navy got one cent ($.01) for each ship because this was the best deal the navy could get. Because it will cost many millions to take the ship apart in a legal fashion (being careful to avoid releasing any real or imagined harmful substances into the environment) it is much more expensive to “break” (disassemble) old ships. The other alternative was to sink the Forrestal at sea. But this requires partial disassembly (to remove anything that could or might pollute the ocean) and that would be even more expensive.

The navy could have sold these carriers to a foreign yard (not subject to the same environmental regulations) and received several million dollars each. But this would create a lot of bad publicity for the navy. Another reason for not selling to foreign yards is security. With China developing its own carrier force, the Chinese could gain access to useful details of how American carriers are built, even though all the classified equipment is removed from a ship before it is broken up for scrap. Ships sent to foreign breakers would be much easier for Chinese spies to get to.

The 81,000 ton Forrestal class ships entered service in late 1950s and were the first of the modern “super carriers.” The design and layout of the Forestalls was the model for all large American carriers since. While selling decommissioned carriers for a penny may seem bad, it’s about to get worse. The “take it for a penny” deal only worked because the Forrestal class was not nuclear powered. For the nuclear powered carriers coming up for decommissioning, it is very expensive to safely take apart and remove the nuclear propulsion system and that will cost the navy a lot of money and headaches.

It was only in 2012 that the U.S. Navy decided to go back to the breakers and forget about sinking this growing collection of retired carriers. Five retired aircraft carriers (USS Enterprise, USS Constellation, USS Forrestal, USS Independence, and USS Saratoga) were to be scrapped instead of sunk or simply allowed to rust away while tied up. These ships were taken out of service between 1993 and 2012 and have been waiting since then while a decision was made on their disposition. But there are even more carriers waiting to be scrapped, and the navy has an economic disaster on its hands. Keeping carriers in reserve costs several hundred thousand dollars a year but it can cost over a billion dollars for a nuclear powered carrier.

Since the 1990s, sending warships to the scrap yard has come to be much less acceptable. It's all about pollution, bad press, and cost. That was because of the experience with the largest warship to be scrapped to date, the 45,000 ton carrier USS Coral Sea. This ship took until 2000 (seven years) to be broken up. Thus, the new ecologically correct process was not only expensive but it took a long time. Then the navy discovered that the cost of scrapping a nuclear powered carrier like the USS Enterprise would be close to a billion dollars. This was largely the result of a lot more environmental and safety regulations. With so many navy ships (especially nuclear subs) being broken up in the 1990s, and all these new regulations arriving, the cost of disposing of these ships skyrocketed. This was especially true with carriers.

So for over a decade the navy just tied up retired ships and waited for some better solution to appear. That never happened. In fact, the situation has gotten worse. The navy only has one ship scrapping facility (Brownsville, Texas), so only one carrier at a time can be dismantled. Using official estimates of the time required to dismantle each of the biggest ships, it'll take seven decades to get rid of the surviving conventionally powered carriers. Note also that the conventional carrier in the absolute worst shape, the USS John F Kennedy, is the one being officially retained in category B reserve (but only until Congress forgets all about her, of course). Name recognition really does count.

It gets worse. With the really vast number of single hull tankers being scrapped and large numbers of old, smaller-capacity container ships laid up and likely to be offered for scrap fairly soon, the market for difficult-to-scrap naval ships is going to shrivel and the price for scrap steel will drop. Efforts to get the navy to include the costs of disposal in the budget for lifetime costs has never caught on and now it's obvious why not. The real nightmare begins with the first nuclear powered carrier (the 93,000 ton USS Enterprise), which began the decommissioning process in late 2012 (with the lengthy removal of all classified or reusable equipment). The cost of dismantling this ship (and disposing of radioactive components) may be close to $2 billion. Until it is done for the first time, no one is sure what the final price will be.

For thousands of years unneeded ships were "sent to the breakers" (a shipyard that broke the ship up for scrap and reusable parts). However, this is now considered environmentally harmful if done the old fashioned way (as it is still done in countries like India) and too expensive if it is done in an environmentally (and politically) acceptable way. In other words, it could cost more to scrap warships than you would recover from the value of the recycled metals.

Another use for retired ships is as museum ships. That is not happening as much as it used to. The big problem, for whoever takes large ships like carriers, is that you have to spend lots of money. It takes hundreds of millions to outfit a big ship as a museum and maintain it.

Another popular option is to use old ships for target practice. For example, most of the 30 decommissioned Spruance class destroyers were used for target practice. Some old warships are sunk closer to the shore, to provide reefs for fish and scuba divers. Running a SINKEX (sinking exercise) enables the navy to test some theories on how vulnerable, or invulnerable, modern warships are. But environmentalists oppose these two methods as well because it puts toxic materials into the ocean.

Going to the breakers is now seen as viable because of more efficient breaking techniques and higher prices for recycled metals. But the prices paid for this scrap metal are declining. The costs of dismantling nuclear powered ships are growing. The navy suddenly has a very large expense that it never expected. This will mean less money for new ships and training crews. That means less readiness for combat.





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