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Caught between a straining operations pace and continued budget woes, the surface Navy's top boss warned Tuesday that his force of 167 ships is drifting ever closer to a readiness drop-off.
Vice Adm. Tom Copeman said the surface fleet was "pretty close" to going hollow in an answer to an audience member's question at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium in Arlington, Va.
"When a combatant commander says a ship's supposed to leave on deployment and it doesn't leave on time for whatever reason, then we know we've probably gotten there," Copeman told an audience of hundreds of officers and industry leaders. "And there's ships right now that aren't doing it."
In a speech that centered on the challenges of shrinking budgets, Copeman warned that the surface Navy may need to sacrifice ships in the coming budget battles to ensure the ones it keeps are fully manned and equipped.
"We're not getting ships through the basic training phase as quickly and easily as we have," the head of Naval Surface Forces said. "We've got amphibs that are getting out of the yards and deploying nine weeks later after extended yard periods. We're cross-decking people like crazy to get ships on deployment, out the door. And what does that do? It allows the ships that are deployed to do their mission, but the ones back home — we can't certify them because we took the people off of that team."
The latest threat is that the surface fleet will lose all of its ship availabilities in the second half of the year — vital overhauls needed to repair ships after deployment. If that happens, Copeman cautioned that deploying ships in the first three quarters of next year may have to leave with degraded capabilities.
As all of these stresses mount on crews, the best people may decide enough's enough and the standards could again begin to slide, Copeman warned.
"It's getting harder and harder for us to look the troops in the eye and say, ‘Hey, here's what you need to do to meet the standard.'"