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Fewer Ships At Sea, Fewer Missions, Less Training: CNO’s Sequestration Damage List

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations.

PENTAGON: The Navy has 10 fewer ships worldwide compared to just a few months ago. It has no warships at all off South America to help combat the drug trade. And training cutbacks will force many units to specialize in a sub-set of their assigned missions instead of getting ready for the full range of tasks required. Those are just some of the consequences so far of the ongoing budget cuts called sequestration, as outlined this morning for reporters by the Chief of Naval Operations.

Next year, if full sequestration continues — and there’s no political movement so far towards a fix — the Navy will have to pay its $14 billion share of the cuts by canceling major maintenance “availabilities” for some 60 ships and conduct line by line reviews of procurement contracts to find ways to trim costs without reducing the number of ships and planes it buys.

Some of sequester’s effects have been well publicized already. The Defense Department will put all its civilian employees on 11 days of unpaid leave, or “furlough.” The Navy halved the number of aircraft carriers it keeps on station in the Persian Gulf. The Army cancelled major training exercises for 78 percent of its combat brigades. The Air Force initially grounded a third of its combat squadrons — although a congressionally approved “reprogramming” of money has allowed those planes to fly again, but at the price of spending less on new technology. Today, Adm. Greenert explained some of the subtler but still painful effects on the US Navy.

Just like the Air Force, the Navy has requested reprogramming authority from Congress, and the CNO hopes for approval soon. “I’m asking for the same thing as the Air Force” with regards to flight training, Greenert said: He wants to get at least those carrier air wings that will soon deploy “above tactical hard deck,” Navy jargon for the 11 hours of flight time per crew per month considered the minimum to retain pilot proficiency.

The CNO’s “priority one” is getting ships into the shipyards for the major maintenance overhauls known as availabilities.”I have about eight of them that I really want to get done this year because they support [20]14 and ’15 deployments,” he said. (If you defer maintenance on a ship one year, it won’t be ready to deploy the next).

Congress took some of the edge off sequestration, Greenert said. “The fiscal year ’13 appropriations bill helped us quite a bit,” he said, by providing enough funds to keep one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group (a task force carrying Marines) always on patrol in the Western Pacific, and one CSG and one ARG in the Persian Gulf (about half the two-carrier presence off Iran that the Navy has maintained until recently).

“Those that we send over now, those we send over in ’14, they will be trained for the full range of missions,” Greenert said. “[But with] the backup, the surge force, we’re not where we need to be”: Just one CSG and one ARG are available to deploy rapidly from the US in a crisis, compared to three and three a year ago.

It’s not that the rest of the fleet can’t sail in an emergency, but they’re not going to be fully ready for the full range of missions that war plans require. A DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer, for example, can bombard targets deep inland with cruise missiles, fight other ships, shoot down hostile aircraft, or — for the latest versions — even intercept ballistic missiles; a Super Hornet fighter squadron can fight other aircraft, attack ships, or strike targets on land in support of US ground forces. These different missions require different skills and therefore different kinds of training. But under sequester, there isn’t enough money for every unit to train on all its missions, Greenert said.

So the Navy must pick and choose. Instead of each unit being able to take on its full range of missions, many will have to specialize in a particular subset. Which units should give up which missions, however, requires the Navy to make educated guesses about just what kinds of needs and crises will arise in the coming months and years — something that is notoriously unpredictable. It’s not disastrous, but it is disconcerting, because it eliminates much of the Navy’s margin for error.

There are some missions so basic to naval warfare that they will not suffer, the admiral emphasized. Pirates should still be running scared, for starters. While the Gulf of Aden off Somalia is relatively quiet, there’s been a troubling upward trend in piracy incidents in the Gulf of Oman over the last eight months. On the other hand, Greenert admitted, there may be some erosion in specialized skills such as “visit, board, search, and seizure” (VBSS) of suspicious vessels.

There are also ways to innovate around some of the cutbacks, Greenert said. In Latin America, for example, at leas for the moment, “sequestration has effectively caused us to reduce our combatant ships to zero,” he said, but there are other Navy assets that can assist the drug war. For example, the Navy’s new Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) Spearhead will deploy to the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) region next year. While the JHSV is not a warship, and its crew are civilians rather than military personnel, it has both considerable transport capacity — say, for law enforcement personnel — and the command, control, and communications gear to direct counter-drug operations.

The Navy has also protected much of its “rebalancing” to the Pacific, the top priority set in the January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. “It’s not budget-proof, but it’s budget-resilient,” Greenert said. The shifting of ships from East Coast to West Coast bases, for example, has slowed but will not stop until the Navy achieves its goal of a 40:60 ratio between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.

In the long run, however, full sequestration will cut into shipbuilding and shrink the Navy. “If you take sequestration for 10 years, that is a worrisome trend,” said Greenert. It will be difficult if not impossible to grow the Navy from its current 286 ships to the 306 that Pentagon planners consider essential to execute the current strategy.

“What we have to do is reconcile what kind of Navy can we deliver with this kind of funding,” said Greenert, “[with] what do we expect that Navy to do.” How to answer that question, he added, is now in the hands of Secretary Chuck Hagel’s SCMR initiative, the Strategic Choices and Management Review.

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