WASHINGTON: The cliff is closer than you think. Pop quiz: When does congressional gridlock start to undermine military readiness? March 2nd, when the automatic cuts known as sequestration will begin to go into effect? March 27, when the Continuing Resolution now funding the government on a stop-gap basis will expire?

Give up? It’s February 15, when the Navy will start to cancel $604 million of major maintenance on 23 warships. (This date applies to the major maintenance work across the services, but it’s tougher on the Navy for reasons explained below.)

The 23 ships include two of the 10 remaining aircraft carriers, USS Eisenhower and USS Stennis. Also affected are two of the fleet’s small and aging force of minesweepers, in high demand in the Persian Gulf and recently reduced from 14 ships to 13 when one, the USS Guardian, was totaled on a Pacific reef; two of its “big deck” amphibious ships, essentially small aircraft carriers that also transport Marines, and two mid-size amphibs; and 15 of its workhorse Arleigh Burke destroyers.

The ships can sail on without the overhauls – which the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert likened to driving your car without changing the oil – but skipping maintenance is especially risky at a time when the fleet is being deployed longer and worn down faster than ever before while it tries to keep watch on both China and Iran at once.

“We’re already riding these ships much harder… taking them out on deployments three and fourth months longer,” the Navy League‘s top spokesman, John Daniels, said. “If you delay the maintenance on them, you’re just asking for more trouble farther down the road.”

The cancelled “availabilities,” as the shipyard maintenance periods are known, could technically be restored if Congress can cut a deal to restore the funds. But even if that happens, there’s a growing sense, at least among House Republicans, that it won’t happen until March or later, and every passing month makes it more difficult and less cost-effective to reinstate the maintenance work.

“All the planning for these availabilities has already been done — so it would not be difficult to restart should funds become available,” a Navy official told Breaking Defense.

Two retired admirals, however, were less sanguine.

“Every 30 days, additional ships will go out of the window [of availability]” and have to go to sea to train their crews for deployments, retired Rear Adm. Joseph Carnevale now senior defense advisor to the Shipbuilders’ Council of America, said in an interview with Breaking Defense. Even if ships haven’t sailed, he went on, “there may not be time enough to do all the work.”

“There might be a way to get those back early in the next fiscal year,” said Peter Daly, a retired vice admiral and CEO of the independent US Naval Institute. In particular, he said, it would be fairly simple to delay September work a few weeks into October, when it would be a new fiscal year for the federal government. But it’s much harder to keep a ship in limbo for months, so vessels scheduled for maintenance over the summer would probably have to skip it altogether and go ahead with training and deployments – delaying their availabilities, he said, “another 26 to 32 months.”

The Feb. 15 deadline doesn’t only affect ships, but it affects them worse than the rest of the armed forces. The date originally shows up in Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s January 10 memo, which ordered the department to prepare for the possibility both of sequestration — the automatic cuts — and of a year-long extension of the current continuing resolution — which sets spending at fiscal 2012 levels for ongoing projects and forbids starting all new ones in the absence of a proper authorization bill for 2013. In particular, that memo instructs the services to “Cancel 3rd and 4th quarter ship maintenance availabilities and aviation and ground depot-level maintenance activities. Take this action no earlier than February 15, 2013.”

As that guidance trickled down to the fleet, however, Feb. 15 turned from “no earlier than” into a start date – presumably because of the administrative lag time involved in cancelling something as complicated as bringing a warship into the shipyard for repairs. “Beginning 15 February 2013,” Greenert wrote his subordinates on Jan. 25, “Fleet Commanders shall notify contractors and cancel all private-sector FY13 3rd and 4th quarter surface ship maintenance availabilities.”

Because of how these contracts are written, the Navy won’t have to pay penalties for canceling maintenance work. Instead of signing a new contract for each availability, the Navy signs a single “multi-ship, multi-option” (MSMO) contract, so canceling an availability is, in contractual terms, simply telling the shipyards the government won’t exercise an option.

The Navy has had to play such scheduling games with availabilities before because Congress couldn’t get its act together, but never on this scale – and even then it wasted money as well as time.

“The Navy has in the past been forced to operate under continuing resolutions that caused them to be conservative with their spending, and at the end of the year the money arrives,” Carnevale explained. Suddenly, the admirals are telling the shipyards, “I’ve got all this money to spend, let’s get all these availabilities planned and executed!” he said. “It gets done, but it is not efficient.”

“It’s extremely inefficient,” agreed Daly. “It’s a great example of how operating four years without a budget is affecting the military and the whole government.”

In prior years, such last minute scrambles involved, at most, $100 million. “This, however, is an order of magnitude beyond anything the Navy has faced in the past,” Carnevale said, citing the $604 million now at stake. “I have never seen a situation where all 3rd and 4th quarter availabilities run a real risk of being cancelled.”

That prospect is a painful one for the shipyards, many of them fairly small, that do the maintenance work. Without the Navy money, they will probably not have the cash flow to keep their current workforce. A preliminary estimate discussed at a Shipbuilders’ Council meeting suggested there might be tens of thousands of layoffs at the shipyards and their suppliers. While the Council declines to issue an official figure, Carnevale said, “I don’t know you can fully recover from it.”

If sequestration goes into effect on top of the Continuing Resolution, the impact of the two sets of cuts is not merely added together, but compounded. Though skipping $604 million of major maintenance is a risk, leaked Navy documents put it in a class of (relatively) “easy” and “acceptable” measures – from a hiring freeze on civilian workers to cancelling new construction on bases – collectively expected to save some $4.6 billion. If sequestration strikes, however, the Navy will be forced to take an additional $4 billion in “irreversible” and “egregious” cuts, from cancelling exercises with allies to deferring repairs on the fire-damaged submarine USS Miami.

If the full $8.6 billion in cuts take effect, the damage to readiness will ripple across the entire fleet. To start with, the document says, the nuclear carriers Nimitz and Bush, along with their aircraft and escort ships, “will not be fully ready for scheduled 2013 deployments.” That means the Truman and Eisenhower’s deployments must be “extended indefinitely” — an ominously vague phrase that probably translates into several additional months at sea.

By October 1st, only the Navy carrier and amphibious forces in Japan will be “crisis ready,” while US-based forces “will require 9+ months to deploy due to maintenance and training curtailments.” Finally, by about April 2014, the two carriers currently deployed in the Middle East will drop to one.

There’s a vicious cycle here: The Navy doesn’t have money to maintain and deploy its ships on the proper schedule, so ships already at sea must stay there longer, which means they require even more maintenance when they get back – at the same time as the shipyards are trying to catch up on work already deferred.

“NINE months to get strike groups back to combat capability? I think as more time goes by, the number will snowball” to something closer to a year, wrote the Navy League’s Daniels in an impassioned email to Breaking Defense. “You will create such a backlog, it will become unrecoverable.”

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