Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of Naval Operations, speaks during an Office of Naval Research conference last year. He is testifying today on Capitol Hill about the effects of sequestration on the fleet. (John F. Williams / Navy)
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In a dire message to lawmakers, the Navy's No. 2 officer testified Tuesday that billions in impending budget cuts will "adversely impact" fleet readiness, dropping steaming days and flight hours, stalling the overhauls on two aircraft carriers and the construction of two more.
"We anticipate reducing flight operations and underway days for our deploying forces, canceling deployments, deferring more maintenance on our ships and aircraft suspending most non-deployed operations, such as training and certifications, along with other cost-cutting measures," Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, alongside fellow uniformed service leaders. "We will immediately begin to erode the readiness of the force."
The outcome has high stakes for the fleet. Midway through the fiscal year, the Navy could be shortchanged by as much as $10 billion by the combined budget cuts, which will fall especially hard on operations and maintenance dollars. Last week, the Navy canceled the Truman Carrier Strike Group's deployment, two days before its scheduled departure. The Navy also has plans to shut down four air wings March 1, Ferguson said.
"After 90 days those pilots will lose their certification. And now it takes six to nine months to train them, at much higher cost," Ferguson warned.
The service chiefs emphasized that cuts won't immediately affect sailors' pay and benefits but could still impact sailors.
Ferguson said the budget uncertainties had a "corrosive effect" on morale and asked lawmakers to reduce the size of the cuts and replace the automatic, across-the-board cuts with "a coherent approach."
The automatic cuts, triggered by a process known as sequestration, would delay the construction start of carrier John F. Kennedy, the completion of amphibious assault ship America, the current overhaul of carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the refueling overhaul for Abraham Lincoln, Ferguson detailed. Ferguson also said the Navy wouldn't be able to buy one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
And if the Pentagon sees a decade-long cut of nearly half a trillion dollars, as the sequestration currently represents, Ferguson said the fleet would drop to as low as 220 ships, down from 288 today.
"We anticipate the fleet shrinking by at least 50 ships and at least two carrier strike groups," Ferguson said in reply to a senator's question.
Sequestration "will undermine the national defense," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, in his opening statement.