When I was stationed aboard the USS Iowa (BB-61) for pre-commissioning of the battleship in the 1980s, the Ticonderoga class Aegis cruisers were the pride of the US Navy. I remember seeing several docked across the quay in Pascagoula Mississipi, and how fast, sleek, and intimidating they looked. Almost forty years on, and these greyhounds of the seas are mostly rust buckets, some of them just lucky to be afloat at all. So, when I read a story about the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) breaking down on its way to the Eastern Mediterranean, I was naturally saddened and amused.
According to the latest reports, the Vella Gulf was several hours out of Rota, Spain when something busted. Apparently, the guided-missile cruiser had to be towed back to port because of some breakdown in engineering. Reading a bit of the ship’s recent history provided a few clues as to why the vessel may have turned back from a mission off Syria. The ship has been sidelined for emergency repairs several times, most recently back in February when a fuel tank rusted through and began leaking highly volatile gas turbine fuel. Another problem with the ship’s complex reduction gears also plagued the aging ship, scheduled to be decommissioned early on account of aging systems and no funds to fix them.
These fleet and once technologically superior vessels were once the center of fleet operations because they sported the Aegis combat operations modules slid into their superstructure like Tony Stark’s power supply in his Ironman suit. The system, which is made up of the Aegis Combat System (ACS) to direct and advance weapons control system (WCS), uses highly advanced (at the time) computer systems to simultaneously track and engage multiple air, subsurface, and even surface combatants. The system is now produced by Lockheed Martin, but originally the system was developed by RCA and General Electric.
It’s almost funny, but back in 2003, a modernization of the Aegis computers was undertaken because the dinosaur software and hardware the cruisers used was less powerful than the average Playstation kids game. From what I can discern, the Java and PTC Perc deployed in the new Aegis Open Architecture upgrade, may still be in use today. As of 2019, some of these cruisers and other applications for the Aegis system were having their software upgraded to something called Baseline 9. I can find no reference to Vella Gulf getting this upgrade. So, then it’s safe to say the rusting to pieces CG-72 may not just be suffering from disintegrated gas tanks and gummy bears in her turbine gears, she may be the most powerful senile smart warship afloat. What could go wrong if a warship with nuclear capability losses its mind or its buoyancy?
Back in 2010, retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle issued the so-called “Balisle report,” which told of an over-emphasis on saving money that led to a dramatic decline in the operational readiness of the Aegis Combat Systems. Some readers will remember it was this system, deployed on the USS Vincennes, that ultimately shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 resulting in 290 civilian deaths. While the navy tried to vindicate the system, experts say the Aegis user interface and other system parameters caused the misidentification of an airliner for an F-14 Tomcat on attack vector.
The reason these rust buckets have not already been mothballed or scrapped is that the US Military is wankers. Okay, let me explain. The Pentagon experts the US Navy will fall short of its requirement for 94 missile defense cruisers and destroyers beginning in FY 2025. Ninety-four, let’s focus on this number for a second. By comparison, China does not even have an operational cruiser and only has 37 destroyers. Russia has five cruisers, all except one having been built prior to 1989. Putin’s navy also has 12 destroyers, three of which were actually built in the last 25 years.
Even the most modern of the destroyers were designed back in the 1960s. It’s safe to say that most of Russia’s fleet since it’s not made of Titanium, is rusting to pieces alongside America’s expensive naval forces. But get this, the only serious threats to US naval superiority in the world, Russia and China, only have just over half as many heavy surface combatants as America. To make matters even crazier, NONE of these fabulously expensive ships has ever had a major engagement. You read that correctly.
The toughest foe the USS Vella Gulf ever engaged was a band of Somalia pirates in a dingy. African pirates wielding machetes, in a dingy! In another crucial service in defense of my homeland, the USS Lake Erie managed to blow up a satellite in decaying orbit over Alaska with an SM-3 missile back in 2008. As I think back, I wonder how much aviation fuel these gas turbine-powered cruisers and destroyers have burned up in the last three decades? By comparison, those pesky and aggressive Russians hardly ever steer their ships out of port. Possibly over the better advice of chief engineers aboard them.
The Ticonderoga class cruisers cost about $30 million dollars each year just to sail them all over the planet showing the stars and stripes. As far as I can tell, the ships have limited capability against alien invasions from another galaxy, despite the films Hollywood produces. For the sake of your time and mine, I will not even get into the dismal disgrace known as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) which is the biggest naval shipbuilding muck up in the history of the world. The $600 million dollar stealth ships are the Edsels of naval shipbuilding. And they cost $70 million a year to fight off pirates and space invaders. As for Russia, China, and America, it seems like the three biggest rusty navies would learn from the English, and who just let their nuclear submarines disintegrate tied up at the piers of HMNB Clyde.
What a Titanic (pun intended) waste of resources and potential, our policies toward one another are. We could visit the stars, cure everything, maybe even live forever for all the folly of weapons systems.
Phil Butler, is a policy investigator and analyst, a political scientist and expert on Eastern Europe, he’s an author of the recent bestseller “Putin’s Praetorians” and other books. He writes exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.