USS Kitty Hawk, once the flagship of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, was sold for a penny, and later USS John F. Kennedy was also sold for a meagre amount. This has outraged many veterans, military enthusiasts, and common people who wanted to be able to visit these ships as museums.
But why didn’t the US Navy sell these supercarriers to non-profit organizations that would raise millions of dollars to turn them into museums and instead decided to sell them to a for-profit corporation for “One Cent”?
On January 15, 2022, USS Kitty Hawk started her voyage from Bremerton, Washington, to Brownsville, Texas, where her new owner awaited her arrival. But Kitty is too wide to go through the Panama Canal; after all, she’s a supercarrier. So instead, she has to go all the way down to the tip of South America, through the Strait of Magellan, and then back up to Texas. This is why, in 2021, the ship was sent to a drydock to clean her bottom so that she wouldn’t spread American West Coast marine life all over South America. This voyage will take at least 129 days and more than 16,000 miles and requires three separate crews.
To appreciate how massive the supercarrier is: Kitty Hawk was too big for any salvage yard on the United States West Coast to handle. That’s why she’s going to Texas; I guess it’s true, everything is bigger in Texas.
International Ship Breaking Limited, the corporation that purchased Kitty Hawk and Kennedy for Two Cents, will turn them into scrap. Kitty Hawk’s once rotating four propellers are now sitting still on her flight deck for this voyage. She is being towed by a single tug, the “Michelle Foss”, at a speed of five to eight knots. The representatives of the salvage company will board the carrier at port stops, but aside from that, she’ll be unmanned for her final journey.
As mentioned earlier, many were disappointed with the decision to scrap these two super carriers for several reasons. One is simply the historical value, Kitty Hawk was in service for almost half a century, a ship from the Vietnam War era on which tens of thousands of sailors had served. Now, it is true that there are already five aircraft carrier museums in the United States, and all of those have their own historical value, too. But none of those five carriers were supercarriers.
USS Kitty Hawk and Kennedy were the only remaining supercarriers that could have been turned into museums. And with them being scrapped, it is unlikely that anyone would ever set foot on a supercarrier museum. And that’s a big deal because supercarriers are a big deal for the United States Navy, military, and the country as a whole. No other nation operates these iconic supercarriers as the US does.
So why exactly wasn’t Kitty Hawk saved? It had to do with money. We should point out that the US Navy doesn’t turn ships into museums because the Navy is not in the museum business. For a Navy ship to become a museum, a non-profit organization has to step up and express interest to Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA, which oversees the ships in reserve. The request is for the vessel to be put on donation hold, preventing her from being scrapped, at least for some time.
The Non-profit organization then has a challenging task of raising enough money to prove they can maintain the ship and operate the museum successfully. To give you an idea, the maintenance and operation costs for USS New Jersey, which is a battleship, are $5 million per year, plus a $1 million insurance plan, and that’s for a battleship museum. A supercarrier like Kitty Hawk is 20% longer and 160% wider than USS New Jersey, which most likely requires a much higher maintenance cost.
In 2001, the USS Kitty Hawk Veterans Association started to raise money to save the ship and received more than $5 million in donation pledges, but that’s not exactly money in the bank, and they were devastated when in October of 2017, NAVSEA announced the decision to scrap Kitty Hawk.
Remember that USS Kitty Hawk and Kennedy were the last two remaining supercarriers that were conventionally powered, starting with USS Enterprise. All American supercarriers are nuclear-powered, so the decommissioning process gets much more complex. Before a ship can be decommissioned, it has to go through a process called Deactivation, or Inactivation, where the ship will report to a naval facility to permit the ship’s crew to offload, remove, and dismantle the ship’s weapons, ammunition, electronics, and so on.
But ships that run on nuclear power must undergo additional procedures to dispose of their nuclear reactors safely. First, the fuel is removed from the reactor, the fluids are drained, and the pipes are sealed. Then the entire reactor compartment and anything connected to it are cut off from the vessel. Each end of the compartment is then sealed by welding steel plates onto it. The sealed-off reactor is transported by barge on the Columbia River to the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear production complex run by the US federal government. Once at the Hanford Site, the reactors are moved to their final destination using a rail system. Interestingly, the reactors are not buried. Instead, they are stored in an open-air pit because, according to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between Russia and the United States, satellite verification of these nuclear reactors are required so the two parties can keep an eye on each other.
The deactivation process for a nuclear-powered supercarrier like USS Enterprise requires cutting her up pretty badly to remove the nuclear reactors sitting deep within her. So now, to turn her into a museum, aside from the millions of dollars that are needed to be raised by the non-profit, which is evidently challenging enough, millions more would be needed to put the ship back together after gutting out the reactors. And this is exactly why USS Enterprise, which historically is quite a significant ship, is being scrapped instead of being preserved.
But none of this explains why USS Kitty Hawk and USS Kennedy were each sold for just a penny. There are tens of thousands of tons of steel and other metals used in the ships, which must be worth a lot of money. But the cost of salvaging them is pretty high, considering that the presence of lead-based paint, PCBs, and asbestos on these ships demands costly remediation.
In addition, the scrapping company needs to get clearance for the staff working on the classified sections of USS Kennedy, which means added cost and complexity.
So why is this shipbreaker in Texas doing all this work for little to no profit? They are doing the US Navy a favour. What do they get in return?
Maybe future contracts and ships that are more profitable to salvage to make up for the lost profit on salvaging these super carriers.
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One thing is for sure the US Navy much prefers to scrap their ships than to donate them to organizations that cannot prove they can maintain and operate these ships as museums in a way that these ships deserve to be presented and preserved. There are examples of museum ships that have failed in the past, and then it all falls back on the US Navy to take back a ship they had once written off. The Navy doesn’t necessarily want to make money off of decommissioned ships but instead ensure they end up in a peaceful place, be it in one piece or many, above the water or on the bottom of the ocean.
Here is an awesome video on this interesting topic: