September 14, 1998

Nuke surface ships become post-Cold War casualties
By Bradley Peniston
Times staff writer

August's final week was bittersweet for the nuclear Navy, which marked its golden anniversary by bidding farewell to the last two atomic-powered surface combatants.

Even as nuclear-trained officers, retirees, and contractors gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate 50 years of nuclear-propulsion research, the nuclear fleet shrank to a force comprised solely of submarines and aircraft carriers.

The guided-missile cruiser California went first, deactivated in an Aug. 28 ceremony in Bremerton, Wash. Sister ship South Carolina survived a week longer, as Hurricane Bonnie delayed the Norfolk proceedings until Sept. 4.

Although the Navy once dreamed of atomic-powered carrier battle groups, nuclear cruisers simply proved too expensive, naval experts said.

"There's really not any chance that anybody will build a nuclear-powered surface combatant again," said A.D. Baker, who edits the authoritative Combat Fleets of the World.

A timing quirk allowed the two California-class cruisers to survive their successor CGNs. Running low on nuclear fuel by 1990, the California and South Carolina reactor cores were restocked and their weapons and radar sensors upgraded during a $425 million overhaul.

Two years later, when the four newer Virginia-class cruisers came up for refueling, the Navy balked at the cost. They were decommissioned shortly afterwards. The three-year overhaul improved a platform whose nuclear propulsion system gave it immense flexibility to steam quickly without scrambling a tanker to follow.

"We had the ability to go out by yourself without any major events. It was essentially almost like having a surface submarine," said Capt. David Brown, the South Carolina's commanding officer.

South Carolina's new radar sensors gave her a better over-land air picture than the Aegis-equipped ships.

"We could see tracks out there that they couldn't, and vice versa. We complemented them well," Brown said.

Down the tubes

Eventually, even those improvements couldn't save the CGN's. Each one cost about $38.8 million to man, operate, and maintain this year, Navy officials said. A typical Ticonderoga-class cruiser costs about $29.5 million annually.

But more that pure dollars were involved in the decision to retire the cruisers, according to a senior defense official in a response to a General Accounting Office report on nuclear and conventional aircraft carriers.

"DoD's rationale for deciding to retire nuclear cruisers from continued service is complex and tied to progressive changes in force structure goals, operational and battle group deployment doctrine changes attendant to the end of the Cold War, and a decision not to invest in modernizing obsolete weapons systems," wrote George R. Schneiter, director of strategic and tactical systems for the defense undersecretary for acquisition and technology.

But, one naval historian was outraged at the Navy's decision to shut down the 23 year-old- ship just five years after completing an expensive overhaul.

"They spent a fortune-and-a-half five years ago for at least 15 years of service," said Samuel L. Morison. "Where's your capital investment? Down the tubes."

But Baker noted that the California-class ships lacked helicopter hangars and other antisubmarine warfare weapons, a big gap in the days of multi-mission ships. "Nobody's going to miss these ships, unlike the seven Spruance-class destroyers we threw away," he said.

Besides, he said, the nuclear-powered cruisers required huge -- and costly -- nuclear-trained crews. The California-class took on board roughly 600 officers and crewmen, while the conventionally powered Ticonderoga-class cruisers carry fewer than 400.

Nukes have glowing future

Brown sees a rosy future aboard carriers and conventional ships for the surface warfare officers who ran the nukes.

"The demise of the CGN has opened up major command and [non-nuclear] surface combatants for the surface-warfare nuclear officers," Brown said. "It actually works out pretty well."

As for the South Carolina and her sister ship, California, Brown said their end reflects the changing world situation and that the nuclear-powered cruisers helped to bring about. "She's done what she was built to do without firing a shot," he said.

Return to the California News Page

This page hosted by

Get your own FREE home page.