PENTAGON: “Sydney, I don’t know how to squeeze it much thinner than we have,” the Chief of Naval Operations said.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert was talking about the aircraft carrier fleet, but he could have meant almost any aspect of the Navy’s 2015 budget . “It’s a confusing budget,” the admiral admitted within minutes of sitting down with five reporters in his E-Ring office this afternoon. But he feels that three high-priority items have been particularly misconstrued, so much so he invited the press in to clear them up: aircraft carriers, aging cruisers, and the Littoral Combat Ship.
- Yes, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (spurred on by his acting deputy, Christine Fox) wants an alternative to the relatively fragile LCS designs now in production. Greenert will commission a task force from across the Navy to look into options, with its recommendations for the 2016 budget due back in July. No, Hagel isn’t demanding an all-new design — in fact, coming up with one on time and on tight budgets would “be quite the challenge” — and the LCS’s successor may well be a souped-up LCS.
- Yes, the Navy wants to take out of active service 11 of its 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers. No, it’s not trying an end run around Congress’s prohibition against retiring the aging but still serviceable vessels. “My point, Sydney, is we’re trying to be true to the intent [of Congress] as we do this,” Greenert said, not find loopholes in the letter of the law. The admiral insisted this is genuinely an attempt to avoid retiring the cruisers and still save money by putting them, essentially, on ice — not “in mothballs,” he said, they’ll be far better cared for than that term implies — until the Navy has the money to upgrade their obsolete equipment and send them back to sea. Fund it and time it right, said Greenert, and you get 11 freshly modernized cruisers re-entering service just as another 11 retire, keeping the Ticonderoga class going until the 2030s.
- Then there’re the flat tops. Does the Navy’s proposal restore the fleet to 11 aircraft carriers from the current 10, a historic low? Well, yes and no.
“I could see people getting confused,” Greenert said, because there are two alternative defense spending plans — one assuming full sequestration, the other the additional $115 billion the Pentagon has requested for 2016-2019 — and when it comes to carriers, the two paths don’t diverge until 2016, he said: “That’s the fork in the road.”
September 2016, to be precise, is when the USS George Washington would come into the shipyard to start removing a quarter-century of spent nuclear reactor fuel. That is the first step in either refueling and refitting her for another 25 years of service or in taking her out of commission. “No matter what you do with it, you’ve got to get the fuel out,” Greenert said.
The 2015 budget request just funds the prep work for that first step. But in the 2016 budget, Greenert said, “we have to have the money to take the carrier one way or the other.” The problem is the Defense Department has to put together its 2016 request this year, before Congress has finished debating 2015 — which is why Hagel has once again directed the services to build two alternative budgets at different funding levels.
It’s that uncertainty that got Greenert talking about how overstretched the carriers have become. “That butter’s spread as thin as I think we can,” he said. “We need 11 carriers.”
There are ways to get more days at sea out of any given carrier, Greenert said, up to a point. To start with, the Navy’s cracking down on the kind of deferred maintenance that resulted in deployment-derailing breakdowns in the recent past. You can also make each deployment longer — but doing that for years on end is what wore out the carriers in the first place. To allow proper time for maintenance and training, the Navy is resolved on keeping carrier deployments down to eight months out of every 36. “I don’t see going beyond that,” Greenert said. “I don’t see how we can.”
Another possibility is more or less permanently basing a carrier out of a foreign port where it would be constantly available to the theater commander. The Navy’s had a carrier homeported in Japan since the Cold War and recently started moving missile defense destroyers to Spain. But today’s budgets are less roomy than the Cold War’s and carriers take up more space than destroyers, physically and fiscally. “One size will not fit all,” Greenert said. “Forward deploying a carrier… we actually studied that; it’s actually mind-blowing how expensive that would be to put the infrastructure in place.”
Of course, once you paid that up-front cost, you could reap the benefits for decades, as the US has in the Pacific. But thinking for the long term may be a luxury that sequestration won’t afford us anymore.