Defense Department leaders spent months warning Congress that military readiness would begin to erode if sequestration went into effect on March 1. The Navy and Marine Corps are telling lawmakers that it’s now happening and that things will only get worse from here.
Across government, agencies say the impact of sequestration will be somewhat insidious. But in the case of DoD’s two sea services, they’re already feeling it, officials told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. “Due to reduced training and maintenance, almost all of our non-deployed ships and aviation squadrons are soon going to be less than fully mission capable and not certified for major combat operations. That’s about two-thirds of the fleet,” said Vice Adm. William Burke, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.
Two months into sequestration, the Marine Corps told a similar story. Lt. Gen. William Tryon, the deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, said more than half of all non-deployed Marine units are currently at “unacceptable” levels of readiness.
“And our crisis response mission is incompatible with tiered readiness,” he said. “Marines don’t start to get ready when a crisis occurs. We must be ready, we must be forward deployed and we must be prepared to respond immediately.”
Limited surge capacity
Both services say they have not yet been put in a position in which they’ve been forced to deploy forces and equipment without the requisite training and preparation.
Sailors and marines who are currently deployed or who are next in line to deploy have had their training funded. But to accomplish that in the context of severely constricted operating and maintenance budgets, the services say they’ve had to virtually eliminate training for service members in line behind them.
“The ones that are not next to deploy are not doing very much,” Burke said. “What we usually call that is surge capacity, the ability to quickly send ships and planes forward, and we’ve significantly reduced that capability.” Because of sequestration and the late passage of a 2013 budget, the Navy says it’s already seeing a dramatic increase in “cross-decking” — the sharing of either sailors or equipment between multiple ships because there’s not enough gear or talent to go around. That’s one of the indicators officials say they’ll be watching in order to determine whether readiness has degraded to dangerous levels.
Tryon said the Marine Corps has several other indicators on its watch list.
“We’re going to know it’s happened when we’re unable to meet the requirements of our global combatant commanders. We’re going to know when there’s an increase in safety mishaps, and when there’s a degradation in quality of life at our installations and bases,” he said. “I would predict at this point that with sequestration, we’ll be at a level that’s far unacceptable, severely unacceptable, in fiscal 2014.”
Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, the deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, forecasted that the Navy likewise would see the ratio of units that do not meet readiness standards increase from two-thirds this year to 80 percent by next year.
For instance, the Navy had originally planned to cancel all third and fourth quarter ship maintenance because of the combined effects of sequestration and the absence of a budget.
Burke said the Navy now has those maintenance availabilities at the top of the list of items it wants to “buy back” now that a budget is in place. But in some ways, the damage already has been done.
“When the money is not appropriated at the right time, planning stops. Secondly, private shipyards, knowing that availabilities are unlikely to happen, either lay off people or don’t hire people,” he said. “If the money gets appropriated later, the planning gets turned back on and shipyards hire, and we’ll spend the money, but we’re not going to get the maintenance done that we needed to get done.”
Nor did the passage of a 2013 DoD budget eliminate the need for civilian furloughs. The entire Defense Department still is planning to furlough virtually all of its non-uniformed workforce for up to 14 days beginning this summer, leading to a nominal 20 percent cut to those employees’ hours and pay.
“What we don’t often think about with the furlough is that it also eliminates overtime,” Cullom said. “It’s not just a 20 percent reduction in work hours. It’s much greater than that. We rely on a lot of overtime in both our shipyards and aviation depots so that we don’t have too many people on board during periods when there’s less work. So the impact is probably as high as 35 or 40 percent.”