CAPITOL HILL: Just when the Navy’s surface fleet had started pulling itself out of a 10-year, $2 billion hole, budget dysfunction may kick it right back in.
We’ve written a great deal about the damage done to all four armed services by the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. But what is happening to the Navy’s surface fleet – cruisers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious warships, and a host of lesser vessels – is subtler and more insidious than aircraft carriers stuck in port, cancelled Army training exercises, or grounded Air Force fighters. In fact, the surface force is suffering through a slow-motion crisis of deferred maintenance that began a decade before the 2011 Budget Control Act was even thought of, and the full extent of the damage won’t be obvious for a decade more. By that point, of course, it’ll be far more expensive to fix.
The bill for deferred maintenance since 9/11 already adds up to almost $2 billion, two Navy admirals told members of the House Armed Services Committee this past Thursday. (As a comparison, $2 billion just about buys you a fully outfitted DDG-51 destroyer, depending on the exact model and options). That’s how much the service has budgeted to catch up, or “reset,” over fiscal years 2013-2018.
The Navy has already made real progress: It has overhauled how it does overhauls, imposed new discipline on inspections, and invested $360 million in reset work in fiscal 2013. It even wrestled all its major maintenance “availabilities” back into the budget despite sequester, with the last eight (three destroyers, three amphibious ships, a minesweeper, and a patrol craft) restored by a congressionally approved “reprogramming” of funds just in July, although the work is significantly delayed.
But if sequestration continues in fiscal ’14, as all political indications are it will, “all of this good work is at risk,” testified Rear Adm. Timothy Matthews, the Navy’s director of fleet readiness.
Of the 60-odd surface ship availabilities planned for 2014, “we’re looking at up to 30 being deferred, delayed, or cancelled,” added Rear Adm. Tom Rowden, the director of surface warfare.
Under sequester, the Navy will focus training and maintenance resources on ships scheduled for “the highest-priority deployments” and economize on the rest. Obviously broken systems will get fixed, but subtler problems and long-term preventive maintenance will suffer, Matthews said.
Ultimately, said Rowden, if you keep deferring maintenance, at some point the problems become uneconomical to fix and ships become too expensive to keep. That means that vessels have to retire ahead of the service lives assumed in the Navy’s long-term plan – typically 30 years for a mid-sized warship – and the size of the fleet goes down. On that course, warned Rowden, from the current 286-ship fleet, “by 2020, we’re looking at about 257 ships.”
That’s especially painful for legislators to hear because Congress in general and HASC Seapower in particular have fixated on the size of the Navy fleet. There’s been much deserved skepticism over the optimistic numbers in the Navy’s 30-year-shipbuilding plan, which Seapower chairman Randy Forbes has repeatedly dismissed as “fantasy,” and there is much nostalgia for the famous “600-ship fleet” of Reagan buildup. (The actual peak was 594 ships in 1987, although how the Navy counts its “battle force” can change in contentious ways). Arguably, the self-inflicted injuries of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program result from a race to get large numbers of small ships in the water to bulk up the fleet.
In its own quest to keep up numbers, Congress has also outright prohibited the Navy from retiring nine aging ships (a mix of cruisers and amphibious warfare vessels) that the Navy said are too expensive to maintain. “Congress gave us money to keep them going in ’13 and ’14, but in ’15, we’ll need [more] money to deal with that,” Adm. Matthews told reporters after the hearing. Is money for those ships in the Navy’s long-term maintenance plan right now? “It is not.”
Matthews did not say so outright, but it’s clear that the Navy sees Congress as having compounded its problems here rather than helping. Forbidding retirements keeps numbers up in the near term but makes the long-term maintenance backlog worse.
So how did the Navy dig itself into this hole in the first place? Part of the answer is the Pentagon’s relative neglect of the Navy since 9/11 as the nation poured money and manpower into two grueling ground wars. The fleet shrank, but its commitments didn’t, leading to longer deployments – approximately 15 percent more days per year – and less time for maintenance.
Part of the answer, though, is the Navy’s relative neglect of its own surface forces. By far the biggest and most prestigious ships in the fleet are the 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which as versatile floating airbases retained relevance to the ground wars by providing air support as far inland as Afghanistan. Second to the carriers are the 72 nuclear-powered submarines (attack, ballistic-missile, and guided-missile models), which quietly hold the line against expanding Chinese naval power in the Pacific.
The bulk of the 286-ship fleet, however, is conventionally powered surface vessels, from imposing Aegis destroyers to modest minesweepers and unglamorous auxiliaries like oil tankers. (The auxiliaries are mostly crewed by civilians, not Navy sailors, and supervised by Military Sealift Command). The non-nuclear warships suffered from the worst of the maintenance shortfalls, with insufficient resources compounded by less rigorous planning and less systematic oversight than that conducted for carriers and submarines.
In 2009, 19 percent of ships that came up for inspection were failing and, after years of denial, Navy leaders publicly acknowledged the problem. In 2010 they radically reorganized the oversight and conduct of surface ship maintenance, bringing in the kind of rigor long associated with carriers and subs. In 2012 and early 2013, they instituted more frequent and shorter-notice inspections. The Navy has now put about 30 ships through major “reset” overhauls in drydock but needs to reset about 60 more. It’s that progress – among many other things – that is put in peril by sequestration.