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Van Buskirk: Manning cuts were too deep

Dec. 10, 2012 - 09:19AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2012 - 09:19AM  |  
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier George Washington man the rails as the ship returns to Yokosuka, Japan. The Navy's end strength is 5,000 below what officials expected at this point.
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier George Washington man the rails as the ship returns to Yokosuka, Japan. The Navy's end strength is 5,000 below what officials expected at this point. (MC3 William Pittman / Navy)
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After two decades of constant manpower cuts, the Navy admits it has cut manning levels too deep.

With only about 317,600 active-duty sailors and officers as of Dec. 6, the Navy is at its lowest manning since 1940; by the end of this fiscal year, the Navy is supposed to have a force of 322,700 — about 5,100 more bodies than it has now.

With that in mind, officials are pulling out the stops to reverse the downward trend — fast.

"We had been working toward a lower demand signal, and so we did overshoot [the drawdown]," said Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, in an exclusive interview Dec. 4 with Navy Times. "We were targeting for a lower force structure and, as a result of that, we did overshoot in terms of targeting a lower [end strength] number."

But after years of slowing advancement and poor re-enlistment opportunity, what's become the Navy headache is really a sailor's bonanza of better advancements, re-enlistments and training opportunities.

On the downside, longer time at sea or involuntary tour extensions could prove a hardship for some.

To incentivize the added work, in many cases, opportunities to extend at sea, cut shore duty or train in critical specialties come with monetary incentives.

"If you look from the mid-[19]90s to today, effectively we've been on a downward slope for our active and reserve components … except for a hiatus around 2001. We've been [steadily] coming down from [a force of] 560,000."

It could have been worse, as the Navy was on a trajectory to cut much deeper — to about 314,000 by 2014, according to Navy personnel officials. But last December, he said, those budget plans had changed, and the service was told they could now level off.

You can't go from flank speed in a drawdown to all-stop on a dime, but Van Buskirk said the Navy is implementing measures to stop the slide and bring the service's numbers back up. Here's a look at those moves and how they will affect sailors in the fleet:

Early-outs suspended

If you plan to get out, you'll have to wait until your end-of-service date — or close to it — before the service will let you go.

The Navy is suspending the Enlisted Early Transition program, a special early-out program, that enabled active-duty sailors to leave service as much as two years early with their commanding officer's approval.

Introduced in December 2008, the program was initially slated to end Sept. 30, 2013, according to NAVADMIN 142/11, released April 21.

Under the program, commanding officers had to agree that they would not get a relief for any departing sailor until the date that person was either slated to rotate or exit service.

The program will remain suspended "until there is sufficient future need," according to NAVADMIN 359/12.

COs have always had the ability to send sailors home up to 90 days early without Navy Personnel Command approval, and that remains in effect.

This program is not related to the Enlisted Early Career Transition Program, introduced in March 2011, which allows sailors to apply to get out with as little as two years in the service if they agree to finish their obligation in the drilling reserve.

Re-enlistment quotas up

Enlisted end strength is at 260,000 — almost 7,000 fewer than the Navy should have at the end of September and about 3,000 fewer than its December projection. To course-correct, the service is once again opening up re-enlistment approvals.

Since 2003, the Navy has required sailors to apply to re-enlist through Perform to Serve, a computerized system that doles out re-enlistment approvals for those with up to 14 years of service. Those above 14 years don't have to apply to personnel command for permission. If qualified, they only require command approval to ship over.

Openings are slated each month by rating and re-enlistment zone. Until last December, that system was sending many sailors home. And many of these sailors still had high hopes of continued service.

"We had dialed down Perform to Serve in terms of how many quotas we were accepting," Van Buskirk said. "[We were] using that as one of the tools to manage end strength."

But in the past year, except in the roughly nine ratings the Navy still considers overmanned, personnel officials said the number of sailors being denied re-enlistment has dropped to between 50 and 100 each month. In addition, the numbers of those needed to convert has dropped, though there's still opportunity for many sailors to convert.

Now, in-rate re-enlistment approvals are above 80 percent in most specialties — higher in others — and officials say with the manpower below required levels, the high approval levels will continue.

Re-enlistment bonuses, too, remain on the table. Although the Navy's program is significantly smaller than just a few years ago, many sailors can still cash in if they have, or agree to learn, needed skills.

Advancements stabilize

This fall, sailors who passed their advancement exams had a nearly one-in-three chance to move up, as opportunity rose to 33 percent — the highest advancement in a decade.

That's up from last spring's 31 percent, and a big increase from the 20 and 18 percent advancement chances the Navy was experiencing a year ago.

Nearly 30,000 sailors will put on a petty officer's crow or add a stripe after advancements jumped 50 percent in less than six months.

With the Navy entering into an era of stable end strength, officials don't see many more heavy increases ahead but say that sailors can count on the service maintaining this level in the foreseeable future.

Renewed recruiting

Sailors in the fleet could see more new faces around their commands in 2013, as the Navy brings in more recruits off the streets.

During the last days of the drawdown, recruiting numbers had dropped to 33,400 in 2011 — the lowest number of new recruits since World War II, and the lowest Navy officials were willing to go.

One of the first things Van Buskirk ordered when the end strength picture changed a year ago was to immediately increase enlisted recruiting goals. Twice last year, the service increased goals to bring in a total of 36,275 enlisted recruits, or 4,000 more than initially ordered.

This year, that goal is again rising to 38,200 new sailors, the highest number since 2008, when the Navy brought in 38,419 recruits.

Recruiting isn't an immediate fix, Van Buskirk said, but it allows the Navy to ensure it will have enough sailors moving through the system to support the future, stabilized end strength.

"The problem there is you have to get them through the training pipeline," he said. "[That] takes a period of time."

Sailors booted from service as a result of the two recent enlisted retention boards question why the Navy would kick them out, then turn around and call for more sailors.

"We were still coming down when we executed the ERB," Van Buskirk said. "When that was put in place, and when it was executed was in the fall of 2011. We didn't change our accession signal until after the first of the year, after we had already made those decisions. Additionally, it was about balance. We had overmanned ratings where people had, for years, been unable to advance in rate in there because we had too many of that specific skill set."

The Navy last year also upped its prior-service recruiting goals. The fiscal 2011 goal was 4,684 prior-service recruits. Fiscal 2012 was 5,055.

Reserve to Active

To fill gaps at sea, the Navy recently launched a program bringing reservists back to active duty. These aren't just activations. These sailors leave the Reserve and return to the active force with a new enlistment contract and can stay longer if they like.

However, the program, launched this year, has not had the reception officials hoped for. They aimed at 350 reservists taking the offer this year, but to date, they've received 24 applications. Seventeen of those were approved.

"We've identified many of the people that are candidates," Van Buskirk said. "We're getting some people coming in — I think that's a good sign."

For more information visit navytimes.com/links/reserive-to-active.

Billets at sea

This summer, the Navy announced it had a nearly 10,000-sailor gap in filling sea duty billets. The service also announced an ambitious program to fix the problem, concentrating on filling jobs first in units scheduled to deploy in the near term.

Van Buskirk said fixing the problem depends on "fit" and "fill." Fill is the percentage of billets at a command that are filled, whereas fit is making sure that billets requiring special skills — Navy enlisted classifications — are matched with people who possess those skills.

"We are making progress. Our fit and fill are going up for our ships, particularly for the priority ones," Van Buskirk said. "Overall, we think by the end of fiscal year '13, that we'll be meeting greater than the requirements that the fleet needs."

That requirement is to have at least 95 percent of the fill and 90 percent of the fit of specific skills. Fit and fill vary across the fleet. But in some cases, fit has been as low as 75 percent, Van Buskirk said.

To fix this problem, the Navy is offering as much as $1,000 for each month a sailor extends his sea duty in a critical billet beyond his normal sea tour. The money is also paid to those who terminate their shore duty to fill a critical billet at sea. It's paid like a re-enlistment bonus in a lump sum.

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