By James W. Crawley
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
August 31, 2004
The sun set literally and figuratively yesterday on the Valley Forge as the Navy decommissioned the 18-year-old guided missile cruiser.
In a ceremony at dusk, the 384-member crew marched off the ship at the San Diego Naval Station. With that, the Valley Forge became the first ship with the Aegis radar system to be retired.
It was one more step in the Navy's plan to replace older, less-capable ships with newer, more versatile ones that cost less to staff and operate.
Newer ships, such as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers being built and the next generation of surface ships, will replace older cruisers. The Navy also is downsizing its ranks to save money to pay for new ships.
"The Navy just doesn't have the money and the people to keep all the candles lit at the same time," said Eric Wertheim, author of the upcoming "Combat Fleets of the World."
A defense analyst, John Pike, said the Navy has decommissioned many "low-mileage ships," although the Valley Forge "may be an extreme example."
Older cruisers, like Valley Forge, can handle air and cruise missile threats, but it can't launch long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles.
"We need ships that do everything," Wertheim said, "and these ships no longer do everything."
Valley Forge cost about $1 billion to build and joined the fleet in January 1986 during the Reagan Administration's 600-ship build-up of the Navy.
Since then, the Valley Forge has been deployed eight times to the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf. It participated in the Persian Gulf War and operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
The ship also was deployed on five counter-narcotics missions, each lasting from one to six months.
On its final cruise, which ended June 25, the cruiser confiscated 7 tons of cocaine and apprehended 21 suspected traffickers off South and Central America.
"The impact this crew made on the war against drugs can never be measured," said Cmdr. Patrick Rabun, the Valley Forge's last commanding officer.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the ship became the first West Coast warship to set up a radar picket off Southern California to stand watch for potential terrorists.
Air defense was the foundation of Valley Forge's naval career.
The fourth vessel of the Ticonderoga class, Valley Forge was designed to protect aircraft carriers from Soviet cruise missile attacks.
Using the same hull and power plant of the older Spruance-class destroyers, the cruisers' superstructure was redesigned to mount the Aegis combat system, a radar system that can detect enemy aircraft and missiles. The ship fires anti-air missiles.
However, the first five cruisers, including the Valley Forge, were built with less-capable twin-armed missile launchers that were replaced by a vertical launch system in the last 22 cruisers built in the series.
Unlike the newer cruisers, the older launchers can't fire long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. Nor are the older warships capable of firing missiles the Navy is developing to down ballistic missiles.
Those inabilities relegated the early Ticonderogas to maritime interdiction and counter-drug roles in recent years.
"The Navy has made a decision to move to an all (vertical launch system) fleet," said Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent think tank in Alexandria, Va.
Besides the older Ticonderogas, the Navy has scrapped Spruance destroyers with twin-arm mechanical missile launchers and has removed launchers from frigates.
The Navy has decided it would have been too costly to maintain and modernize the veteran ships, so Valley Forge and four other cruisers – Ticonderoga, Yorktown, Vincennes and Thomas S. Gates – will be decommissioned in the next two years.
The Valley Forge will be towed to Pearl Harbor, where it probably will be designated as scrap and, possibly, sunk in a future naval exercise, said Lt. Cmdr. Pat McNally, a Navy spokesman.
Aegis purchase seen as possible
2004-08-30 / Taiwan News, Staff Reporter / By Taijing Wu
Taiwan's desire to acquire an Aegis-equipped ship could probably be realized in the future as the cruiser USS Valley Forge (CG 50) is scheduled to be decommissioned today at the Naval Station in San Diego, according to a U.S. media report on Friday.
The Defense News, an authoritative and independent U.S. publication, stated that neither the United States nor Taiwan has publicly revealed whether there is any interest in transferring the vessel to Taiwan, but its availability could be tempting.
The USS Valley Forge is the first U.S. Aegis-equipped ship to be decommissioned, but over the next 18 months four others would be withdrawn from active service, a situation that may provide some temptation to prospective buyers.
A local newspaper recently reported that U.S. authorities would announce the release of an Aegis warship for sale to Taiwan in the year 2005, but the report was strongly refuted by a source close to the U.S. Department of Defense on grounds that Taiwan had not submitted a letter of request on this matter to the U.S. government since 2002.
The Taiwan government and Navy has for years been extremely anxious to acquire the Aegis technology. Recent media reports throughout Asia have raised the issue of Taiwan possibly acquiring new Aegis-equipped ships from countries other than the U.S. Korean Hyundai Heavy Industries has been recently commissioned by the Korean Navy to build the first of three 7000-ton Aegis warships. Construction is scheduled to begin next month.
The Japanese Navy, the first Asian country to operate an Aegis-equipped warship, currently has four in service and two others are scheduled to be built in the very near future.
Some local military analysts have said that Taiwan should hold some discussions on the issue of acquiring the Aegis platform since it would be foolish to buy used ships when new ones are available.
The USS Valley Forge is a 9600-ton Aegis cruiser. It was commissioned on January 18, 1986, and built by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. The 173- meter long ship is propelled by four General Electric LM 2500 gas turbine engines. Fully loaded, its displacement is approximately 9600 tons with a cruising speed of more than 30 knots. It can carry two helicopters and is armed with two Mk 26 missile launchers for Standard missiles and Anti Submarine Rockets, Mk 46 torpedoes, Harpoon missile launchers, two Mk 45 5-inch/54 caliber lightweight guns and two Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems.
Like other Aegis warships operated in Asia, the USS Valley Forge has a crew of 350. Defense News quoted a naval analyst A. D. Baker who said: "The Taiwanese do not have the kind of personnel problems we do, because people are not as expensive, they have the technological infrastructure to maintain an Aegis system." Taiwan's Legislature is currently debating the merits of a NT$610 billion special military budget for the purchase of eight U.S.-built electric diesel submarines, twelve P-3C submarine-hunting aircraft and six batteries of PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capabilities) missiles.
Military analysts in the U.S. have expressed the view that Taiwan needs to decide about its weapons procurement bill before seriously discussing possible acquisition of the cruisers.
Most Taiwanese military analysts are doubtful of the need to acquire the eight diesel-electric submarines, and John Tkacik, an Asian analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington shares this view.
"Nobody's going to be able to look at the Aegis in any kind of serious way until next spring," Tkacik was quoted by the Defense News as saying. "By that time, there could be a growing consensus in the U.S. and Taiwan that, with China continuing to add ballistic missiles to its arsenal, transferring Aegis ships to Taiwan might be more important than submarines," he said. "My own thought is, if you're looking for Aegis for US$5 billion (compared with the submarine program), I think I'd go with the Aegis and start going in that direction."
"One reason is: Aegis is there. The submarines don't exist." he added.