Peace Time: Chinese Military Museum Ships


September 4, 2023: China is adding a nuclear submarine and a Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine to its growing number of museum ships. With these new additions China will have seven museum ships. Worldwide there are over 200 museum ships, most of them established and maintained by non-government organizations. In China the government owns and maintains the seven military museum ships. Many countries maintain some commercial vessels as museum ships. All but two of the seven Chinese military museum ships were foreign built. The Chinese built museum ships include a destroyer and a nuclear submarine. The rest were originally obtained from Russia.

Chinese are particularly proud of the nuclear submarine museum ship because the sub was built in China. It is a Type 091 Long March No. 1 SSN (nuclear attack boat), completed in 1974. This first Chinese SSN was definitely a learning experience, not fully entering service until the mid-1980s. The Type 091s are small (4,100 tons) as SSN’s go and have a crew of about 75 sailors. French sonar was installed, and a lot of the other electronics came from foreign suppliers. In the 1980s it was thought the Chinese would just scrap this class but they kept repairing and updating them. The 091s are hopelessly out of date but five were built, one has been retired and the oldest is being turned into a museum ship.

The other Chinese museum ships include three destroyers, one frigate, and a Kiev-class Russian aircraft carrier. The Chinese are particularly proud of the museum ships built in China, especially the nuclear submarine.

There are a growing number of military museum ships worldwide, but many of them are not maintained by the government but by private groups. The growing number of museum ships has created a crisis in dealing with the growing cost of maintaining old warships as museums and tourist attractions. Most of these vessels are in the water and literally rusting away. Many are now in need of major refurbishment, which can cost over $100 million for a carrier or battleship. Even smaller ships (cruisers, destroyers, and submarines) can require over $20 million to put back into shape to just sit in the water, receive visitors, and not sink or fall apart the next time a major storm hits. Most of the largest of these museum ships are American, largely because the U.S. has had the largest fleet in the world for nearly a century.

The end of World War II and the Cold War put a lot of warships out of work. Most were broken up for scrap or sunk using weapons as a form of training. But increasingly over the years many were donated by the U.S. Navy for use as museum ships. Most of these were smaller ships, like PT Boats or patrol boats. A small seaside town could afford to maintain these small craft with local volunteers and some cash donations. But many cities sought to obtain large ships. This led to five aircraft carriers (USS Hornet, Intrepid, Lexington, Midway, and Yorktown) and ten battleships (USS Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) becoming impressive and very expensive to maintain museum ships. The Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor during the infamous 1941 Japanese sneak attack and a museum and memorial built around the largely submerged vessel. The other carriers and battleships are tied up at a pier and visitors are allowed to view many parts of the ship.

There are also over fifty destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, and submarines serving as museum ships. More are on the way, if the cost of maintaining current museum ships does not scare off everyone. The World War II Museum Ships are all up for major refurbishment and the few that have had it have demonstrated that this sort of thing is very expensive.

For example, in 2009 the U.S. Navy retired its last non-nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. The navy offered the ship to any government or non-profit organization that wants to maintain it as a museum ship. The navy never found any organization willing or able to turn the carrier into a museum ship and it was scrapped in 2021. Entering service in 1968, the Kennedy was 321 meters (1052 feet) long and displaces 82,000 tons. It would have been the largest museum ship ever. The big problem was that it could cost several hundred million dollars to transform it into a museum ship and maintain it.

The U.S. Navy has long been willing to donate old ships to groups that were willing to maintain the retired vessels as museum ships. But the navy attached some very expensive strings. That is, the navy expects the ship to be kept in decent shape. This is a problem with many old metal ships, as they rust. And eventually they rust so much that the hull is breached and ultimately will collapse. The navy has not yet repossessed any museum ships but a growing number of these ships are deteriorating. Refurbishment is so expensive that some sponsoring groups are considering letting the navy have the ship back.

For example, the World War II era Essex class carrier USS Intrepid, in New York City, returned to its display berth in 2009, after a two year refurbishment costing $120 million. The entire hull was examined, in dry dock, for decay and over a hundred square meters (nearly a thousand square feet) of hull had to be replaced. A sister ship of the Intrepid, the Yorktown, requires a similar refurbishment. Since 1975, the Yorktown has been on display in Charleston, South Carolina, with several other museum ships. The Yorktown, which entered service four months before the Intrepid, needs the same kind of work. The navy is insisting on it, with the alternatives being sending the ship to the breakers or a lawsuit. The naval museum in South Carolina is in a bad situation, as $120 million is hard to find, even when the economy (and wealthy donors) are doing well. The big donors are much harder to find these days.

Another popular option is to use old ships for target practice. A prominent example of this is how 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. For the moment anyway.




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