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The Navy is the lone service that aims to grow, adding as many as 8,600 sailors over the next six years to plus-up ship crews and the Navy’s cyber force, according to the budget documents released April 10, a spending request that also calls for building eight ships and buying 165 airplanes.
The Department of the Navy’s $156 billion base budget request is $3 billion lower than the 2013 enacted budget without the sequester factored in. With sequester cuts, the 2014 request is $7 billion higher.
These cuts have also stalled the multimillion-dollar repairs needed for the destroyer Porter and attack submarine Miami.
Even as analysts warned the size of the Pentagon’s budget may lead to another showdown, the Navy made clear that sailors’ pay and benefits would again be protected from another round of sequester cuts. After a decade of drawing down, the ranks are set for a boost.
“The Navy’s going to grow slowly over time,” said Rear Adm. Joe Mulloy, the deputy assistant Navy secretary for budget, in the Navy budget presentation. “We’ve pretty much reached the point where, to be able to operate with the force we have and to be able to properly man and train, we need these forces.”
The force musters 317,464 sailors — thousands below the end strength targeted for Sept. 30. The head count is sure to bump up as boot camp swells this summer. The Navy plans to add 900 sailors during fiscal 2014, which starts Oct. 1, with an end strength request for 323,600 sailors. Those billets include 500 maintainers at intermediate repair facilities, 1,000 nuclear-trained personnel, 980 sailors for F/A-18 Growler squadrons, 1,000 crew members and trainers for littoral combat ships and another 1,000 for Navy cyber, Mulloy said.
The fleet is set to fall by 10 ships, from 283 to 273, over fiscal 2014. The Navy allocated $11 billion to build eight ships: two Virginia-class attack subs, one destroyer, four LCS hulls, and one mobile landing platform. Aviation acquisitions include four F-35C Lightning II planes, 21 EA-18G Growlers, five E-2D Hawkeyes, 16 P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, 37 MH-60 Seahawk helicopters and one Fire Scout drone.
The service aims to buy 53 F-35C jets, the carrier-based variant of the joint strike fighter, over the next five years. But if the program sees more technical snags or delays, the Navy has a ready alternative: buying more F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, as it has done before.
“They haven’t greatly amped up their financial enthusiasm for the F-35C and they still have the luxury of time with the Super Hornet,” said Richard Aboulafia, a military analyst with the Teal Group, who explained that because Hornet manufacturers are still building planes for the Navy, it would be easy for the service to buy more without seeing their prices go up. “It’s not much of a luxury, a couple of years at most, but it’s still there.”
Maintenance money is tight. Ship and aircraft depot level maintenance — the comprehensive repairs needed periodically to ensure platforms reach their expected service lives — are each underfunded by roughly 20 percent. Ship depot repairs, costing $5.2 billion, have the highest percentage of unfunded maintenance since the Navy started reporting this five years ago, according to budget documents. The same goes for aviation depot repairs. In part, this is the result of the service’s losing billions in war funding. In the past, Navy budgeteers have tried to steer more money into maintenance later on.
One key lawmaker said he was concerned about the repercussions the maintenance underfunding could have on the fleet.
“I’m very concerned about our maintenance budgets. As you know, the maintenance that we do on our vessels will determine the kind of fleet we have down the road,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who chairs the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee. “I think what we’ll find is, we’ll do all of the maintenance that we needed on the carriers and the submarines. It’s the surface fleet that I’ll really be worried about.”
A year ago, the Navy said it planned to retire seven cruisers and two dock landing ships. Lawmakers ordered the service to put that plan on hold. All nine ships are funded, but that could change if the Navy finds itself strapped for cash later on, Mulloy made clear.
“There are no decommissionings for any of those ships in this budget,” Mulloy said, adding that under sequestration, he wouldn’t rule out retiring them in fiscal year 2015.
Meanwhile, Navy officials have slated 11 other ships for retirement in fiscal 2014:
The frigates Halyburton, McClusky, Thach, De Wert, Rentz, Nicholas and Robert G. Bradley. Three of these ships are based in Mayport, Fla.
Los Angeles-class attack sub Dallas, based in Groton, Conn.
Amphibious transport dock Denver, based in Sasebo, Japan.
Mine countermeasures ship Avenger, based in Sasebo.
Fast combat support ship Bridge, operated by Military Sealift Command.
The names of the ships, confirmed by a Navy official who was not authorized to speak publicly before the Navy’s shipbuilding plan was released, were first reported by Politico.
Op tempo and budget cuts
Sailors will feel the effects of the Navy’s $10 billion sequester hit this fiscal year, officials cautioned. To save money, two squadrons have been reduced to minimum safe flying hours with two more set to join them. And nondeployed crews will see the number of steaming days drop to 20 per quarter, depriving them of training time.
“Every ship is losing 20 percent of their underway days,” Mulloy said.
However, the threat of ever deeper budget cuts gave the Navy the chance to dial back the two-carrier presence demand it had sustained for two years in U.S. Central Command, which had been straining the fleet. Even now that the service has more money, it doesn’t plan to deploy a second carrier, Mulloy said.
If, he said, “something happens in the world, or in the Middle East, I could deploy a carrier. She’s ready to go on short notice. But there is no need to just put her out … there.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agreed to reduce the requirement in February, a move that canceled the Truman Carrier Strike Group’s deployment two days before it was set to leave. The Navy advised the Defense Department that if it continued to supply two carriers through this year, it wouldn’t have the money to deploy any next year.
In other words, the fleet could stay at “2.0” carriers for this year and drop to “0.0” next year, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert on April 8. The other option: keep one carrier at all times for this year and next, with Truman held in reserve.
“It was determined by DoD leadership that that was the right thing to do,” Greenert said.