As officials try to grow the fleet in 2013 to address a manning shortfall, sailors should see advancement opportunity remain at its recent high levels. Here, petty officers are frocked during a ceremony aboard the amphibious assault ship Nassau. (MC2 Patrick Gordon / Navy)
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The Navy Uniform Board in 2013 could decide to allow sailors to wear ball caps with the Navy working uniform in all circumstances, not just the few shipboard exceptions now on the books. (MC2 A.J. Jones / Navy)
A new running suit for sailors could be approved in 2013. (Alan Lessig / Staff)
From head count to headwear, from decommissioned frigates to littoral combat ship manning, even how the Navy weeds out drunken sailors — here are some of the changes to watch for in the coming year:
1. Manning concerns
The chief of naval personnel, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, admitted to Navy Times in early December that the service had overshot the drawdown — cutting too many sailors and forcing the fleet to fill manning gaps.
That shortfall will affect a host of personnel policies: Some early-out policies already have been suspended, and re-enlistment approvals for those who want to stay are being increased.
Plus, it could mean more cash — an overall shortage of sailors has made it tough for the Navy to reduce its shortfall of 10,000 sailors at sea. In July, officials announced sea duty incentive pay for sailors in the most critical ratings.
The pay is essentially a lump-sum bonus of $500 to $1,000 for each month a sailor agrees to stay on sea duty beyond his normal sea tour, or per month of lost time on shore if a sailor agrees to head back out early. Some sailors could be ordered back to sea involuntarily and would also qualify for the bonus.
Those bonuses are expected to continue through at least fiscal 2013, but could be adjusted as the Navy's needs change and billets are filled — Van Buskirk said the fleet was "making progress" on closing the gap and could be at or above requirements by the end of the fiscal year in September.
As of Dec. 20, there were officially 317,587 people on active duty with the Navy. By the end of fiscal 2013, the Navy is supposed to have a force of 322,700 — about 5,100 more bodies.
The reason for the shortage, Van Buskirk said, was that personnel officials were planning for a lower end-strength figure.
"We couldn't turn the ship fast enough, so to speak, to turn our end strength when those planning assumptions changed," he said in a Dec. 4 Navy Times interview.
2. Steady advancements
The manpower shortage also will contribute to steady advancement rates in the petty officer ranks, which have increased over three straight cycles. Officials say sailors can expect those numbers to be sustained, but shouldn't expect additional significant increases in during 2013.
The chance to advance this fall was again up across the board: 47.7 percent for E-4, 32.4 percent for E-5 and 19.6 percent for E-6 — an overall chance of 33 percent for the three paygrades combined.
That came on the heels of a landmark set of advancements this past spring, when 29,872 active-duty and full-time support sailors moved up — about 10,000 more than the 19,814 who advanced in fall 2011.
The spring increase put overall advancement at 31 percent, in turn a significant jump from the 20 percent and 18 percent chances to advance during the 2011 fall and spring cycles, respectively.
Officials say they expect a "steady state" for advancement and a return to historic advancement rates of 10 years ago.
Navy leaders had promised the uptick this year while traveling around the fleet specifically to ease deck-plate concerns after last year's enlisted retention boards. Those 3,000 sailors cut from specific year groups in 31 overmanned ratings were a great contributor to increased opportunity.
Most of those 31 ratings had been struggling to advance many sailors in the petty officer ranks in previous years, but now only nine ratings remain in that problem status.
3. Uniform rules
Officials expect to modify uniform rules next year in response to fleet feedback. Topping the list could be a change sailors have been clamoring for — bringing back ball caps.
Top uniform officials are reconsidering the Navy's 2010 decision to ban command ball caps from wear with the Navy working uniform, with rare exceptions for watchstanders and training teams while underway, mandating the eight-point cover instead. Support for ball caps has been steady ever since. Advocates say the ball caps instill unit pride and still present a professional appearance.
Van Buskirk, the three-star head of the Navy Uniform Board, said that body has yet to receive any such proposals from the fleet. But sources told Navy Times that the fleet's senior enlisted leadership plans to submit a request next year.
Another priority: tinkering with NWU wear rules. In late 2011, the service loosened rules so sailors could dine out in NWUs. But at the same time, officials reiterated that they're only suited for the stops you make while commuting.
Going home and then heading out to the mall in your "blueberries" is still against the rules. However, there's still a significant gray area about what constitutes an appropriate stop. Officials have said shopping is OK, for example, but movies and "extended" meals are out. Attending your child's after-school concert or game is another cloudy zone.
Officials are considering clarifying the rules "to ensure people understand which uniforms can be worn where," Van Buskirk said in a December interview, noting that this would include guidance on how to wear the uniform properly.
These proposed rule changes come as the Navy grapples with the controversy that NWUs will melt in a fire. Officials have said they're examining the Oct. 15 test results, which found NWUs will "burn robustly" and "melt" when exposed to an open flame, but emphasized the uniforms are still OK for shipboard use and to wear when putting out small fires.
In the past, the Navy has recalled items that will melt in a fire. In 2010, for example, officials pulled from stores half a million polyester-cotton blend shirts designed to be worn beneath NWUs because of this risk. A panel is reviewing fleet uniforms and will make recommendations to Fleet Forces Command on the way forward.
4. New uniforms
Officials may have shot down throwback khakis, but there are plenty of other new uniform items coming in 2013.
Uniform officials are wrapping up a wear test of a new running suit. The blue warm-up suit is being tested for cold-weather exercise by 180 recruits at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill. The test signals a new chapter in the five-year effort to approve outerwear for the yellow-and-gold physical training uniform, with officials abandoning the wind suit for softer fabric.
The running suit is designed by New Balance. Its nylon-polyester fabric is designed to wick away sweat. The elastic waist is cinched with a drawstring, and there is a pocket to store keys and your ID card. Both the pants and pullover are emblazoned with the "NAVY" logo in gray reflective letters.
Whether officials decide to go ahead with it hinges on feedback from the Windy City test.
The Navy is also testing better winter outerwear. The goal is to field a warmer parka by next winter. It could be worn with service uniforms, when you need something heavier than a peacoat.
The 100 wearers are testing two coats off the rack. One is a heavy, black parka worn by the Canadian navy. The other is a three-in-one jacket worn by the Coast Guard and more similar in its layered design to the Navy working uniform parka.
Early in 2014, officials will also decide whether to go forward with the common cover, where men and women will wear the same headgear. Female sailors would wear "Dixie cups." Female officers would wear the flat combination covers.
This has been part of a larger review of women's uniforms, with a push from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to ensure that female sailors blend in with their male counterparts. As part of it, officials are also testing whether women should wear the blue crackerjack jumper, instead of the suit-style coat they now wear.
Officials are set to decide next year on whether to adopt some or all of these changes.
5. Fleetwide Breathalyzers
Sailors in the fleet can still count on having Breathalyzers onboard their commands in 2013. Exactly when is still up in the air.
Mabus announced the plan for fleetwide tests in March. In May, a pilot program involving 12 fleet commands began after then-Fleet Master Chief (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens requested the beta tests, based on feedback from chief's messes.
The tests were to ensure that real-live fleet feedback would be the basis of any Navy-wide policy and therefore "ensuring the final policy will be fully executable," Stevens, now master chief petty officer of the Navy, said in May.
In his initial announcement, Mabus stated that the plan was to have a Navy-wide instruction and the testing gear distributed to commands at the end of 2012. That was not the case as of Dec. 28; no updated dates for releasing the instruction or fielding the gear to commands have been announced.
Officials said final results of the beta tests and the draft instruction were still being briefed to the Navy's leadership and that they expected to be able to release those results and the fleet rollout plan quickly.
The program is expected to cost the service $8 million in fiscal 2013 for startup costs, then $2 million a year after that, officials said.
The mandatory testing program has generated much discussion — and controversy — among sailors, many of whom still doubt it truly will be "nonpunitive," as Navy leaders insist.
6. New skipper screening
The Navy saw 25 commanding officer firings in 2012, the highest in nearly a decade.
The sheer number, as well as the headline-grabbing nature of some of these incidents, has concerned Navy leadership enough to tighten the standards for command, the Navy's premier job. That began with an overhaul of the screening process.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert ordered that by June, every prospective CO must go through a formal screening process. Previously, some communities — such as specialty career path officers, unrestricted line officers who command alternative units rather than subs, squadrons or ships — have not had a consistent screening process.
The rules also set a higher bar for command training and qualification. Officers seeking command must pass a written test and pass an oral board. And executive officers, who've already been command-screened, must be certified by their chain of command as fit and able before taking charge.
In addition, the Navy is again experimenting with 360-degree reviews, where subordinates and peers rate an officer on performance and professionalism. Advocates say these could help identify character flaws and leadership issues early enough in a person's career to address them, but these reviews have also met considerable resistance from the officer corps. While the Army has adopted them across its officer corps, the Navy only uses them informally and for select groups, such as surface warfare ensigns, prospective COs and new flag officers.
Greenert ordered another pilot. This time, the surface fleet will perform 360-degree reviews on department heads during one of their two department head tours. The reviews will be purely for that officer's awareness and will not go into his fitness report.
7. Stress on carriers
2012 may go down as the year of the long cruise. And with more crises here and on the horizon, 2013 likely will be another tough year for the fleet.
That's especially true for amphibious ready groups and carrier strike groups, whose firepower and versatility remain in high demand as the U.S. faces tensions and instability across the Middle East.
The carrier fleet is already being worked hard, but next year things will be tougher. The Enterprise was inactivated Dec. 1, dropping the carrier fleet to 10. It means there will be even less elasticity to an already stretched carrier Navy. The effects became clear late this year after the Navy decided to keep the carrier Nimitz in the yards longer than originally planned to fix cooling pumps on its propulsion system.
That move required the Dwight D. Eisenhower to return home three months early from a nine-month deployment so its flight deck could be resurfaced and it could make a quick return to 5th Fleet.
This shuffle has impacts across the fleet, and other hiccups could disrupt plans even more. But so far, the Navy says the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group will deploy early next year. Meanwhile, the carrier George H.W. Bush; Carrier Air Wing 8; cruiser Philippine Sea; and destroyers Bulkeley, Roosevelt and Mason will leave next summer, ahead of schedule.
While the schedule has been rearranged and some sailors will be in tough circumstances, the Navy doesn't expect deployments to last longer than previously scheduled. This means, as Greenert said in the summer, that the average carrier deployment will last eight months and 13 days.
8. Longer amphib deployments
The Navy's fleet of amphibious ships continues to undergo change in 2013, but it will remain too small to support requirements. The Navy will accept three new amphibious transport docks this year: Anchorage (to be commissioned in May in Alaska), Arlington (a tentative commissioning date of April 6 at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.) and Somerset (September).
However, plans to retire two older dock landing ships, the Whidbey Island and Tortuga, got held up in 2012 by a balking Congress, so decommissioning dates remained uncertain. So too is the decommissioning of 42-year-old Denver, the last remaining ship in its class and oldest gator, now operating in Japan.
One thing is certain: The amphib fleet is smaller than what the Navy and the Marine Corps say is needed and what defense experts argue is necessary to support overseas operations. But officials have worked around that, accepting "risks" with a smaller fleet of 33 ships, far short of the 38-ship amphibious force the Marine Corps says it needs. As of Dec. 20, the Navy had 30 amphibious ships in its inventory, but some weren't operational or readily deployable.
Big-deck ships and their crews in the coming years will get little rest and relief. This year, the amphibious assault ship Essex is getting a much-needed yearlong overhaul and maintenance in San Diego. Bonhomme Richard, which replaced Essex in a 2012 swap, is dedicated to 7th Fleet in Japan. The next new big-deck — America, LHA 6 — was 85 percent complete at year's end but won't be delivered to the Navy until late summer and won't be operational until 2014.
Tripoli, LHA 7, will get its first cut of steel Jan. 7, said Bill Glenn, a Huntington Ingalls Industries spokesman in Pascagoula, Miss., but it'll be several years before sailors take over its spaces.
Even with the new LPDs arriving this summer, and remaining older LSDs going into the yards for midlife extensions, the six rotating three-ship amphibious ready groups/Marine expeditionary units in the next year or two likely won't see the traditional six- or seven-month deployment, which West Coast-based sailors had enjoyed until 2012. Longer deployments can close gaps between the next scheduled deployments or allow geographic commanders to overlap forces where needed in some places, like the Persian Gulf.
The Navy expects to be short one to four amphibs at any time from 2013 to 2020, according to a Dec. 10 Congressional Research Service report. Sailors should expect deployments lasting seven to eight, or even nine, months to become the norm in the gator fleet.
9. LCS settles in
Slowly but surely, the Navy's new community of littoral combat ships and LCS crews is taking shape in San Diego, the first home port for what is supposed to be a 55-ship fleet inventory.
Three ships — Freedom, Independence and Fort Worth — arrived at Naval Base San Diego, the fledgling fleet's West Coast-based home, in 2012. LCS 4, Coronado, will be delivered to the Navy this year and commissioned in its namesake city in late fall, said Lt. Richard Chernitzer, a Naval Surface Forces spokesman in San Diego. The tiny oceanfront city and popular tourist destination adjoins Naval Base Coronado.
The Navy will deploy Freedom, the first ship of the class, to Singapore this year — it's one of Greenert's top priorities — in a demonstration of the ships' capabilities.
Singaporean officials gave the green light in 2012 for the Navy to send up to four of the ships in rotations to the Southeast Asian city-state, starting in 2013.
This year, more sailors will be trained at the LCS Training Facility, which in October stood up in San Diego under the Center for Surface Combat Systems' Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center.
The high-tech facility, where crews use integrated simulators to train in shiphandling, engineering plant management and combat systems employment, will get delivery of an integrated surface mission package in the late summer, Chernitzer said. The Navy plans to incorporate the training center into a fleet synthetic training exercise later this year.
10. More hails and farewells
Five frigates are retiring from the fleet in 2013, the Navy said in a fleetwide March message. But the fate of four cruisers remains in limbo.
The Navy had slated the cruisers Cowpens, Anzio, Vicksburg and Port Royal for retirement in 2013, but Congress has signaled it intends to cut off funds for their decommissioning, leaving their fate unknown. The Navy has agreed to defer the scheduled retirements until Congress reaches a deal.
Many experts believe that any deal would not save Port Royal, which suffered extensive damage after a 2009 grounding near Pearl Harbor.
The frigates Underwood, Curts, Carr, Klakring and Reuben James are slated to be decommissioned in February and March and sold to foreign navies.
Along with the three amphibious ships and the LCS mentioned above, the Navy plans to commission a submarine in 2013, according to Navy spokeswoman Lt. j.g. Caroline Hutcheson. The attack sub Minnesota is set for an August commissioning and will be the fleet's 10th Virginia-class boat.
11. New airframes
Despite budget cuts, naval aviation will continue its transition to the latest warplanes available, including milestones involving the joint strike fighter.
The Integrated Test Force at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., received its final JSF carrier variant, better known as the F-35C, on Dec. 11. Once the Pax River folks conclude testing, the fleet will receive its first JSF, likely in late winter. Pilots and maintainers have been training in Strike Fighter Squadron 101 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., but they haven't had the carrier variant of the aircraft available.
Also in 2013 — likely midway through — the first of the E-2D Hawkeyes, successors to the E-2Cs will head to Early Warning Squadron 125. The new plane's sensors cast a wider net, can focus on one target longer and can provide a greater level of detail than the previous suite.
The transition from the EA-6B Prowler to the EA-18G Growler will continue in 2013, as the Navy's halfway through converting its 14 squadrons to the new electronic-warfare aircraft. Two more are expected to change over in the coming year, and the Prowler training pipeline will be shut down.
Likewise, the transition from the P-3 Orion to the P-8 Poseidon will move along, with a new squadron making the switch every six months. The P-3 is scheduled to leave the fleet entirely by 2020.
As new aircraft enter, Naval Air Systems Command is planning on ways to keep its F/A-18 Super Hornets sharp. The jet will go out of production in 2014, and NAVAIR's already focused on service-life extensions and any systems upgrades it will require before leaving the fleet.
12. Weaponized UAVs
Naval Air Systems Command will test-fire an Advance Precision Kill Weapon System missile from an MQ-8B Fire Scout in the coming year. If it works, it will give the Navy its first deadly unmanned aircraft — all previous UAVs have been used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Officials have previously said that an armed Fire Scout will primarily focus on ISR missions, but the weapons will allow the unmanned helicopter to engage targets of opportunity. Only the MQ-8B will be armed; the larger MQ-8C will remain weaponless and stick to intelligence missions.
Milestones are also in reach for fixed-wing unmanned aircraft in 2013. The Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration program is scheduled to both shoot and trap an autonomous X-47B aboard an aircraft carrier. It would be the first time a pilotless aircraft has completed either of those feats.
Meanwhile, work will begin on the follow-up program to UCAS-D, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, as the Navy progresses toward its first operational carrier-based drone.
13. Pacific shift
The coming year will see a continuation of the U.S. military strategy's so-called "pivot" to the Pacific, as the Navy shuffles its fleet closer to a 60-40 Pacific-Atlantic split by 2020.
Along with the littoral combat ship's first-ever overseas deployment to Singapore, mentioned above, sailors will see more port visits in 2013 to exotic cities in the Philippines and Australia, among Pacific Rim countries that seek improved ties with the U.S. The move will expand joint training and access to military ranges, ports and other facilities.
The annual U.S. Pacific Fleet humanitarian, disaster response and civic assistance mission known as Pacific Partnership this year will take place this summer in the South Pacific, with training and operations scheduled to take place in the Oceania region. An official announcement is expected by spring. The San Diego-based hospital ship Mercy did the Pacific Partnership mission in 2012, as well as in 2010 and 2008, so this year's task is expected to be a gray hull, likely one of the smaller amphibious ships from San Diego.
Along with increasing U.S. presence in the Pacific, the military is rebalancing forces around the region, including beefing up facilities on Guam into what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called "a strategic hub." But actual shifts of forces there hinge on settling disputes over the planned reduction of U.S. troops in Japan, notably nearly 9,000 Marines, with about 4,700 moving to Guam, where concerns remain over the costly buildup of infrastructure and bases in that U.S. territory.
Extensive environmental studies still must be completed in Guam, where the Navy wants to build a berth to support aircraft carriers transiting the region and other facilities to support U.S. forces.
14. Changes in your grocery cart
In 2013, your on-base stores may offer more locally produced and grown foods and more products manufactured by environmentally friendly, sustainable means. Under pressure from consumers and Congress, the Defense Department is working on new procurement policies to identify more local fresh meat, poultry, seafood and produce that could be sold at commissaries and exchanges. Such a move might result in fresher food — but possibly at slightly higher prices.
Defense officials are weighing how many customers are willing to pay a little more for a product that's less harmful to the environment, which would determine both stock assortment and placement on store shelves.
15. Pharmacy co-pay increases
Troops, family members and retirees who pick up brand-name or special prescriptions at a pharmacy other than a military facility will pay $4 to $19 more for medications in 2013.
Under the new law that dictates Pentagon policy, Tricare will continue charging $5 co-payments for generics at retail stores and $0 for a 90-day prescription by mail. But co-pays for brand-name drugs at retail pharmacies will rise to $17, up from $12, and to $44, up from $25, for specialty, or nonformulary, drugs not on Tricare's list of approved medications.
Three-month refills by home delivery will increase to $13 for branded medications, up from $9, and nonformulary medicines will cost $43, up from $25.
Prescriptions and refills for medications listed on Tricare's formulary will continue to be offered at no charge at military treatment facilities.
Staff writers firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Mark Faram, email@example.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Sam Fellman, firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Gidget Fuentes, email@example.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Rick Maze, Josh Stewart and firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.