Photo: US Navy
Having failed to produce timely defence spending bills or avoid a chaotic end to a year-long march toward sequestration, the recently-deceased 112th Congress also failed to approve a normally prosaic measure allowing the transfers of old Navy ships to friendly navies.Failure of the transfer bill means the Navy will now need to spend millions of dollars, U.S. ship repairers won’t get a hefty dose of foreign work, and allied countries won’t have the chance — at least for now — to avail themselves of surplus U.S. Navy warships.
At issue is the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2012, a short, straightforward bill that lays out, by name and hull number, which ships the U.S. wants to transfer, what countries they would go to, and the terms of the transfer — loan, grant or sale. The measure long was a regular part of the annual defence authorization bills, but for the past few years has been submitted separately in order to give congressional foreign relations committees a chance to consider them.
This year’s proposal, to transfer 10 Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships to Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey, was sent to Capitol Hill on June 4 and referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. There it languished for nearly seven months until New Year’s Eve when — only because Congress was in session to debate the so-called fiscal cliff situation — it was brought to the floor of the House for debate and a vote.
In remarks Dec. 31 to introduce the bill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the committee, noted concerns about the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. But she also commented on Turkey’s support for coalition anti-piracy and NATO operations.
Each frigate transferred, Ros-Lehtinen said, will require $40 million to $80 million in repairs and refurbishment, money spent almost entirely in the U.S. Each ship also, she added, has “the potential for millions more in follow-on services, equipment, and training.”
Without the transfers, Ros-Lehtinen said, the alternative “is to place the decommissioned ships into cold storage or have them be sunk. Navy funding is required for both the storage and the sinking option.”
The cost to inactivate each ship, according the Naval Sea Systems Command, is about $1.1 million, with annual maintenance costs of about $30,000.
Rendering the ships environmentally safe for recycling or sinking also would bring a hefty price tag.
None of the 10 ships has yet been decommissioned. The U.S. and receiving navies prefer a “hot transfer” situation, whereby the U.S. Navy decommissions its ship, walks its crew off, papers are signed, a new, non-U.S, crew walks aboard and raises the receiving nation’s flag. No inactivation costs are incurred during such a turnover.
Three of the 10 frigates, the Curts, Halyburton and Carr, are set to decommission early this year — one in January, and the other two in March.
The other frigates are set to leave active U.S. service over the next two years.
No deals have been set for the ship’s transfers — they can’t be arranged until the legislation is passed and signed into law.
Approval of the transfer act does not transfer the ship — it merely means lawmakers have approved the proposed plan. The Navy, State Department and the foreign nation are then free to work out the details of the transfer. If any of the parties don’t agree, or the foreign nation decides it doesn’t want the ship, the deal doesn’t happen.
But without congressional approval, no deal can be arranged.
The House, on Dec. 31, approved the measure by voice vote and sent it to the Senate, where it was expected to pass easily if it could be brought to the floor for a vote. But an unknown senator put a last-minute hold on the bill, effectively killing it, and the measure appears to have expired Thursday, along with the 112th Congress.
While some Hill sources were unclear what the future held for the bill, others said the measure was dead. An entirely new bill would need to be submitted under the new Congress, sworn into office Thursday.
“These things usually are not controversial,” a Hill source said about the annual vessel transfer bills, even though negative comments are often made in debate about one country or the other.
No mention was made in the House debate about Mexico, Taiwan or Thailand. Two lawmakers expressed concerns about Turkey — one for its relations with Israel, the other for threats against Cyprus — concerns also expressed by conservative Greek organisations lobbying against the Turkish transfers.
Objections about Turkish policies are not unusual, but Turkey is a traditional U.S. ally and NATO partner which has been the recipient over the years of dozens of ex-U.S. warships, and the Turkish Navy already operates eight Perry-class frigates.
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