[updated 9:45 am Wednesday with DOT&E data] CRYSTAL CITY: Navy crews don’t have enough sailors, training, or spare parts to keep up with operational demands, the Commander of Naval Surface Forces said bluntly this afternoon. The service needs to make better use of smaller budgets by standardizing equipment and adopting new training simulations, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman said, but even that’s not enough: Ultimately, he said, the Navy must get smaller to stay ready.

That approach doesn’t play well on Capitol Hill, which is so focused on the keeping up the size of the fleet that last year it refused to let the Navy retire three aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers which admirals said cost more they were worth to keep maintained.

[Click here for more from a Navy 4-star on readiness problems and how the fleet is “terrified” of the damage sequestration could do]

Even as the Navy’s tempo of operations has increased — largely in response to a new assertiveness at sea by both China and Iran — “we’ve taken away people and training,” Copeman said. “It’s getting harder and harder to look the troops in the eye and say, just meet the standard…. We’re getting more ships that can’t.”

“We’ve got to make a trade off,” he said. “You can’t have 167 ships [in the surface fleet] that don’t have enough people, don’t have enough training, don’t have enough parts, and don’t have enough time to get ready to deploy.”

“If it were my choice,” Copeman said, “I’d give up force structure to get whole. But it’s not always my choice.”

Copeman told the annual conference of the Surface Navy Association that the fleet is headed towards a “hollow force” unless it makes progress in three areas:
- new training simulations to sharpen sailors’ skills in everything from maintenance to battle tactics;
- more standardization of the current myriad of different systems and installations particular to specific ships, which vastly complicate both training and the procurement of spare parts;
- more frequent inspections by the Bureau of Inspection and Survey (INSURV), not to punish commanders and their crews, he emphasized, but to give them feedback on what needs fixing.

But even such efficiencies and innovations won’t be enough, said Copeman, who as “type commander” for surface ships oversees about 73 percent of the commissioned vessels in the Navy, although only 17 percent of its personnel and 26 percent of depot maintenance funds (surface ships tend to be cheaper to build and operate than nuclear submarines, let alone aircraft carriers). Ultimately, he warned, “if you don’t want to get hollow, you have to give up force structure.”

“Resources are going to drop. They’re going to drop significantly,” the admiral said.

The most immediate crisis is the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. If the sequester begins as planned in March, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has ordered the services to economize on maintenance, including cancelling scheduled overhauls of Navy ships outright. If the fleet really has to go ahead and cancel those “third and fourth quarter surface force availabilities [for major maintenance],” Copeman warned, surface ships scheduled to deploy in the first quarter of 2014 and beyond will go into action behind schedule or with “degraded” performance, key systems will break faster, and they’ll more expensive to fix when they do break down.

But the problems predate the current fiscal crisis, Copeman said.

Already, even with a sequester, “we’re hundreds of millions of dollars short” in maintenance accounts, Copeman lamented. “We just don’t have the resources to buy the parts that we need, [and] we gave up that money a long time ago,” not just recently.

The same longstanding shortfall applies to personnel: “We took too many people off the ship starting about 12 years ago,” Copeman said.

“We made a lot of assumptions” about how new methods and technologies would save manpower, he explained, but “we weren’t able to deliver on all of them.” (This has been a particular problem for the newest vessels in the fleet, the Littoral Combat Ships, which were designed around a small crews enabled by automation and shore-based maintenance — which has not performed as planned).

Since the maintenance workload has not shrunk as fast as the number of sailors aboard to do it, Copeman said, the crew that’s left needs to be much better trained. They aren’t.

Instead, ship crews have become increasingly reliant on Navy shore facilities and private contractors to help them cope with a bewildering variety of non-standard systems that can make every ship a unique puzzle for maintainers. [Updated: This is another Littoral Combat Ship issue: A report out Tuesday from the Pentagon’s independent Director of Operational Test & Evaluation lists the array of systems unique not just to LCS, but to each of its two variants]. “You don’t want the chief [petty officer] picking up the phone and calling the tech rep within 10 minutes of something breaking,” said Copeman. “You can’t do it when you’re at sea or you’re at war.”

At the same time, “I’m not going to get a bigger training budget,” Copeman acknowledged. “I can’t afford to have nine brick and mortar schoolhouses.”

Instead, he said, “we have to take advantage of technology” with new, sophisticated simulations. But computer training programs have to be designed with care to engage and educate young sailors, he emphasized, not just “putting together a bunch of PowerPoint slides.”

While better training can increase the supply side of the Navy’s maintenance problem, standardization can diminish the demand. There are far too many different versions of systems serving the same function on different ships, Copeman said, from weapons mounts to infra-red sensors. The Navy needs to get rid of specific types of equipment that are known maintenance nightmares and standardize on a manageable number of systems that work.

Finally, to keep the fleet on track, the Navy Bureau of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) needs to get back to its roots with more frequent inspections. Under the current system, he said, all too often “we just do it once every five years and throw a bunch of money at it” in the last quarter before the inspectors arrive — and then all those resources go away as soon as INSURV leaves.

The goal of more frequent inspections isn’t to find fault and fire people, Copeman emphasized. “It’s to train and educate the force more frequently than we do right now on what the standards are.”

From training to spare parts to inspections, Copeman said, “let’s find a new way of doing the task. We shouldn’t keep throwing money at problems” — especially since there’s going to be ever less money to throw.