Navy living out its ‘heyday,’ but rough seas ahead

Jared Serbu reports on the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium

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With several serious budget puzzles on the table and no immediate solution at hand, there are a lot of gloomy faces in the Pentagon at the moment. Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy, is not one of them — he thinks the Navy’s better off than at any point since World War II.

Work often makes the case that, yes, today’s Navy is smaller than it was a few decades ago when counted by its numbers of ships and sailors, but it’s also vastly more capable. He made that argument in forceful fashion Wednesday to an audience at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium in Arlington, Va.

“Yes, things might get worse. In fact, they probably will get worse. But this is the heyday of the U.S. Navy,” he said. “And, if you’re not excited, you ain’t breathing.”

In the 1980s, the Pentagon wanted to build a fleet of ships numbering 600 in size. It never got there. By Work’s reckoning, the size of the surface fleet topped out in 1989. DoD’s 2014 budget, he said, will call for a fleet of about 300.

But Work unleashed a barrage of figures over the course of about 30 minutes, making the case that it’s time to stop worrying about sheer numbers. He said it’s the characteristics of the ships that matter, not just how many there are.

For instance, he said, the Navy has focused its surface fleet dollars on building high-end cruisers and destroyers, and across the fleet, ships are more standardized than ever before, leading to lots of efficiencies in resourcing and training. They’re also linked together in cyberspace in a way that no potential adversary’s fleet can match.

“People say we’re having a lot of problems. But they forget that back then, you had to worry about steam power plants, you had to worry about all different types of maintenance paths. I cannot imagine an officer saying they would rather fight in the 1989 surface fleet over the fleet we have now, given the capabilities we have,” he said. “Yes, we are down by a total of about 28 ships, which buys you about seven ships present all the time. We have fewer ships, but we’re building up.”

“They’ll wake up crying every two hours”

Even while cheerleading the Navy’s current capabilities, Work freely acknowledged the future is likely to be less rosy, with Congress and the President facing March deadlines to come up with an alternative to sequestration and to deal with an expiring continuing resolution.

With so many moving parts to the various budget deadlines that will come together in March, it’s foolish to make predictions about what the political process will yield, Work said, but he did so anyway.

His guess is that DoD will remain under a continuing resolution for the rest of the year, but that there will be a deal to avert the automatic budget cuts.

“I can’t imagine that Congress will let [sequestration] happen,” he said to the audience in attendance. “It could. But we are planning as if sequestration occurs and a year-long continuing resolution occurs. And if that happens, ladies and gentlemen, the world as we know it will end. There’s just no way that you’ll be able to keep the Navy whole or the Marine Corps whole if that happens. No way. So if anybody tells you just take the shave, we’re bloated, blah, blah, blah. Tell them to come sit in my shoes for maybe half an hour. They’ll sleep like a baby. They’ll wake up crying every two hours too.”

The Pentagon already has directed the Navy to make plans to cancel all ship maintenance availabilities in the second half of the fiscal year in case the impact of the two pending budget emergencies coincide. If sequestration happens, procurement budgets would be immediately reduced by roughly 9 percent as with all other accounts in the DoD budget. The Navy believes it would have to cancel hard-fought, multi-year agreements for shipbuilding, since it would no longer have sufficient funds to pay suppliers under the original terms of the competition.

But like the other military services, the Navy’s also worried about the readiness impacts of a sudden funding cut in the middle of the fiscal year. Work said the Navy’s people are stretched thin as it is.

“Operational tempo right now is killing the Navy,” he said. “We do not have enough time to do the maintenance we need to do, we do not have enough time to train. We need to exercise and test, we just don’t have the time to do so. There’s a very major push to keep more carriers out all of the time, and that kind of sucks [operations and maintenance funding] out that way. And you cannot scrimp on maintenance. So what’s the right mix between manning, operations and training? It is tough.”

Know it when he sees it

Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, the commander of Navy Surface Forces, raised similar readiness concerns earlier this week, telling the same conference that the fleet already is close to reaching a point at which it won’t be able to adequately meet the missions it’s asked to perform.

“We’ve increased the standard Navy work week. We’ve increased maintenance responsibilities, we’ve added missions, and in the meantime, we’re taking away people and training,” he said. “So, it’s getting harder and harder for us to look the troops in the eye and say, ‘Hey, just do it and meet the standard.’ We’re going to have to make tough decisions. If you don’t want to get hollow, you have to give up force structure. You have to. You can’t keep the same number of people and the same number of ships with the right number of spare parts and the right amount of training and the right amount of ammo and still call yourself whole. You just can’t do it.”

Copeman said he doesn’t know when the readiness tipping point will come – but he’ll know it when he sees it.

“When a combatant commander says a ship’s supposed to leave on deployment and it doesn’t leave on time for whatever reason, then we’ll know we’ve probably gotten there. And we’ve got ships right now that aren’t doing it,” he said. “It never ceases to amaze me how sailors rise up to any challenge, but there’s a point at which we have to give them more resources. They’re going to start walking. They’ll do anything we ask them to do, but when the time comes for them to decide whether [to reinlist], they’re going to say, ‘Nope, not going to do it.’ We’ve been through this cycle before. I’d hate to do it again, I really would.”

Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, said his service has proven repeatedly that it can handle budget cuts, but it can’t handle them under the rubric of sequestration, which would slice each of DoD’s programs, projects and activities by exactly the same amount, exempting only the accounts used for uniformed servicemember salaries and those used for combat operations in Afghanistan.

“In case these things trigger, we’re beginning to slow the burn rate on programs and people now,” Mabus said. “But we’ve shown over the last four years that we’re willing to make hard choices. We’re willing to cancel things that are of lesser priority. I’d like to reserve the right to actually do that management, so give us the flexibility. I think we’ve proven we can do it. We’ve got 42 ships under contract with less money than they had in 2008, when they only built three ships.”


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