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Marines, Navy March Into ‘Fiscal Valley Forge’

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

PANAMA CITY, FLORIDA: As budgets tighten, the Navy and Marine Corps are looking at a host of ways to save, from installing LED lights on ships to slowing vehicle purchases to centralizing power on the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff.

“We are entering a fiscal Valley Forge, a time of austerity,” said Ariane Whittemore, the Marine Corps’s assistant deputy commandant for resources. Her analogy invoked George Washington’s brutal winter of 1777-1778, when the starving Continental Army lost a quarter of its men but emerged a leaner, harder force.

Back in the Revolution, the military was so under-resourced it couldn’t even issue proper boots to all its troops, and “their uncovered feet left bloody footprints in the snow,” Whittemore said Tuesday. Today’s resource crunch won’t literally leave the force bleeding (one hopes), but it will be plenty painful all the same. Over a decade of wartime urgency and abundant budgets, the military has gotten used to abundant, costly gear: The price to equip a single Marine has increased sixfold since 2000, Whittemore said. “We expect defense spending to continue to decline over the next few years,” she warned, “yet everything we buy gets more expensive.”

Whittemore, a Senior Executive Service official — the civil service equivalent of a general — spoke Tuesday morning at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual conference on expeditionary warfare. Her remarks were followed, and her message echoed, by two of her uniformed peers: Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the marine’s deputy commandant, and Vice Adm. William Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

Burke’s powerful position is new. It was created in March as part of a major reorganization of the Navy staff whose primary purpose was to centralize the authority to make painful trade-offs. “It sets up the opportunity in a downward-trending environment to make trades,” Burke said.

The full list of staff directorates and sub-directorates that swapped places is bewildering. The bottom line, though, is that Burke’s new “Warfare Systems” office, codenamed “N9,” centralizes authority over buying, manning, and supporting Navy weapons, which were previously three separate functions: “Instead of trifurcating the process as we’ve done in the past, we’ve pulled it all together,” Burke said. In the past, he said, “the only thing that mattered was the cost to buy that ship” up front, because the directorate N8 staff that decided what ships, planes, and other systems to acquire did not have to account for the cost to man and maintain them over their years in service — costs frequently far greater than the initial procurement price but which were fobbed off on less powerful staff offices. Burke’s new organization has the authority, in theory, to get its hands around the entire life cycle cost of weapons.

Often, Burke argued, a small investment up front when a new ship or other system is built can return big savings down the line. He’s pressing for new submarines and amphibious warfare ships to use energy-efficient fixtures such as LED lights instead of conventional lightbulbs.

Whittemore, too, lauded initiatives to save energy and money, like the Marine Corps’s move to rechargeable batteries: A single battalion in combat goes through 182 disposable batteries in 24 hours, she said, so switching to rechargeables saves $15,000 dollars a day — and reduces the suppy load troops have to haul.

Whittemore also touted other Marine initiatives in getting more combat power for less money, like the Harvest Hawk project that straps sensors and missiles on KC-130 cargo planes. She also praised the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program to replace the Humvee as “a great example” of reining in overly ambitious and unaffordable requirements.

It was Deputy Commandant Mills who briefed the conference on the many compromises in the Marine Corps’s ground vehicle programs. To make JLTV affordable, the Marines and the Army — which are developing the vehicle together — made tradeoffs on “protection and weight and capability,” he said. The Marines also cut the number of JLTVs they plan to buy, planning to replace only some of their Humvees with the new vehicle and overhauling the rest. “The Humvee’s not going to go away,” Mills said.

Similarly, the corps will have to overhaul hundreds of aging Amphibious Assault Vehicles — armored transports that swim from ship to shore and then move inland on tracks, a central piece of amphibious operations — and hang onto them until 2030. The original AAV replacement, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, was cancelled by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011. Now the Marines are working on a much more modest system, called the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, which is slated to enter production only after the Marines have finished buying its JLTVs. Even then, they don’t expect they will ever be able to afford replacing all their existing AAVs with new amphibious armored vehicles, so they will mount many troops instead in a less expensive Marine Personnel Carrier that will have to be carried ashore by landing craft. MPCs wont be bought until the ACV bill is paid.

“Cost is important,” Mills said simply. “You have to buy what you can afford.”

The careful sequencing and restrained ambitions of the Marine Corps’ ground-vehicle programs reflects a grim presumption that the budget won’t get better for many years to come. That’s a notable change from the traditional tendency to forecast that budgets would conveniently balloon at some point in the future.”We fool[ed] ourselves into believing we’re going to buy all that stuff, [but] we’re never going to grow that much,” said Whittemore. “We’ve got to be realistic in our long-term planning.”

Of course, to get to the long term, you have to survive the short term, and the automatic cuts called sequestration are still on track to start January 2nd. “We are not planning for sequestration,” Whittemore insisted, echoing the Pentagon party line that the law is so rigid that there is no room to exercise discretion.

Added Burke, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with sequestration, but it is the law of the land.” Even if Congress manages to repeal it, he added, “I can’t believe we will not have some funding cut” — beyond, that is, the cuts already planned.

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