Exiting The Budget ‘Fog’
With FY ’13 cuts final, CNO details action plan for next 6 months
Nixing overhauls. Ships in limbo. Aircrews bracing for a slowdown. Even the possibility, at one point, that two carrier strike groups would be stuck on cruise — indefinitely.
“We have reconciled that,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said of the last possibility, one of the many drastic measures considered during the months-long budget crisis that the Navy only began to emerge from in late March, when lawmakers passed a spending bill.
During the crunch, the Navy canceled seven cruises — often days before they were to leave — ordered one deployed frigate back to its home port and idled nine ships pierside. The last-minute shifts and whatifs wore down sailors and their families.
After sputtering through this “fog bank,” as Greenert called it in a March 26 interview at Navy Times headquarters in Springfield, Va., the Navy’s now charting its course through the rest of the fiscal year. But the service, still short billions of dollars, will not be able to fully restore all of its accounts; it will fall to the CNO and other top leaders to decide things such as which ships will deploy and which will be repaired — choices certain to ripple beyond the next six months.
Back in the air
Greenert’s focus starts with meeting global demands for naval forces and with restoring the fleet’s training after the slowdown. That begins with getting squadrons flying. Some had been held to the minimum number of flights required to safely maintain pilots’ proficiency, a status known as tactical hard deck.
“There are those that we have been holding in tactical hard deck. We want to now move those into the [fleet response training plan] cycle and get them into their routine so that those air wings are ready to deploy in [fiscal year] ’14,” Greenert said in the interview. “For ships, we want to get our nondeployed out to at least 16, 18 days a quarter.” The budget cuts have also imperiled a crucial stage of the fleet’s readiness: overhaul. As many as 22 ship overhauls set for the rest of the fiscal year have been on the chopping block. Greenert said it is his mission to restore as many of those overhauls as is feasible.
But that process remains uncertain. The new spending legislation keeps the more than $10 billion in cuts triggered by sequestration in place — including $4 billion for operations and maintenance — but allows the Navy more flexibility in how to manage them. The cuts will shrink the Navy’s coffers by as much as 9 percent over the next six months, Greenert said.
“It is causing us to make choices and prioritize anywhere from our operations to our maintenance to our investment accounts,” Greenert said, labeling this an “undeliberate” process that presents a host of challenges, including the across-the-board spending cuts that officials abhor.
Officials are now poring through the new law. The now-canceled cruises do not appear to be coming back, but the Navy plans to get the nine idled ships steaming again: the cruisers Cowpens, Chosin, Port Royal, Gettysburg, Hue City, Anzio and Vicksburg, and the dock landing ships Tortuga and Whidbey Island.
“Because we have a spending bill, that $9 billion shortfall has been cut in half, so we still have a little bit of a shortfall in operations and also in our investment accounts because of sequestration, but we’re in much better shape,” Greenert said in a video released March 29. “For the next couple of weeks, we here in Washington will be coordinating with your leadership out there in the fleet to do the right thing with the money that we have.” He added: “For our sailors out there, what it means is your pay will be stable as it has been, our manpower accounts have been stable throughout this whole turmoil that we’ve gone through and they will remain the same. “We’re going to retain our family readiness programs as they have been. [Permanent change of stations] will remain stable throughout all this, so moves should continue apace. Tuition assistance is still at 100 percent and I’m working to keep it at that level.”
The fleet is central to President Obama’s latest defense strategy, whose epicenter shifts to the bustling and contentious Pacific theater. Ships will continue to patrol 7th Fleet’s waters and be ready to respond to crises, whether a devastating tsunami, North Korean warmongering, or flaring tensions over disputed islands. With so many ships needed there, officials are assessing how to get more presence bang for their deployment buck.
One option is Japan. Eighteen ships are currently homeported there, between Yokosuka, near Tokyo, and Sasebo, the amphib and minesweeper base on the country’s western tip.
Greenert said he was “looking hard” at ways to boost the number of ships based there.
“We get a ton of presence out of … the destroyers in Japan and so [we’re] looking for more of those opportunities,” he said, explaining that it takes at least four ships based stateside to support one forward-deployed because the others are in various stages of transit, maintenance or standdown.
Another possibility is sea swap. That involves crews rotating duty on a forward-deployed ship, effectively cutting out that transit time to and from the region. This is a routine process in a few parts of the fleet, such as ballistic and guided-missile submarine crews who swap the same sub back and forth, and minesweeper crews, who rotate through all the hulls.
Greenert said he believes this concept should be tried again on other ship types, like the joint high-speed vessels and the mobile landing platform, which have hybrid crews of sailors and civilian mariners. But destroyers and attack subs are not feasible, Greenert added.
“One Arleigh Burke is not exactly like another Arleigh Burke,” Greenert said of the ship class, which is known for the variance in Aegis combat system suites between ships. “SSNs,” he continued, “we have looked at that: Very complicated and hard to do and not really cost-effective.” In recent weeks, Navy officials have finally managed to reduce the strain on the fleet. It came by dropping the 5th Fleet carrier requirement from two to one, a long-sought reduction that outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta OK’d in February, citing budget concerns. Should sequestration vanish in October or later, it remains unknown whether the requirement will return to two carriers.
In the meantime, Greenert said he’s focusing on ways to improve sailors’ quality of life, including examining steps to make deployment schedules more certain, reducing stress on sailors and families.
“We are pursuing a more predictable approach to op tempo,” Greenert said, “if we can get that.”
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