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Navy's top officer talks challenges in 'State of the Navy'

Jul. 23, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Navy's top officer wants to free up funding so air wings won't have to go into a reduced operational state after returning from deployment. As of April, Carrier Air Wing 11 — members of which are shown above before a launch from the carrier Nimitz — was scheduled for that state, known as tactical hard deck, upon its return. (MC2 Jacquelyn Childs / Navy)
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Facing unrest abroad and budget woes at home, the Navy is undertaking some painful choices to preserve as much readiness as possible while cutting some missions altogether, the Navy’s top officer made clear in a July 19 Pentagon briefing.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert warned during his “State of the Navy” news conference that as the Navy contends with a $4 billion shortfall through September, ongoing reductions in training will ripple through the fleet over the next few years.

Nowhere is this more concerning than in the Navy’s “surge” force, the bench of ready-to-go ships that can be sortied in war.

Seventh and 5th Fleets each have one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group on patrol, and one CSG and one ARG are surge-ready. “A year ago, I would tell you we had three carrier strike groups and three amphibious ready groups ready to surge, and that’s really the issue we have there,” Greenert said.

There are also fewer 4th Fleet patrols. The number of warships patrolling the Caribbean and training with South American counterparts have essentially fallen to zero because of budget pressures, Greenert said.

“We are zero today and that was a deliberate decision, approved by the secretary of defense,” said Greenert, who added that, at most, two ships will patrol U.S. Southern Command waters at any time during fiscal 2014.

Greenert warned that nearly half of the sorely needed ship overhauls may be deferred in fiscal year 2014 because of budget woes.

“About half of the 60 availabilities that we have planned will have to be deferred,” said Greenert, who did not say whether this would also affect carrier and submarine overhauls. “You can’t buy those back right away ... If you don’t do that maintenance period and the ship is then called out to do other things, it’s a missed opportunity.”

The Navy has asked lawmakers to shift money into operations to buy back as many as eight canceled ship availabilities for this year and to boost flying hours, with some nondeployed squadrons now stuck at minimum safe flying levels known as tactical hard deck.

“I want to get above tactical hard deck on some of our air wings” that are nearing their deployment work-ups, Greenert said. “I want them closer to where they would notionally be under a work-up.”

The Navy will also cut flag officers. Over the past decade, the fleet has shrunk. The enlisted force has shrunk. And now the number of flag officers, which had ballooned over that time frame, has started to shrink. Greenert said the service is on track to reduce the number of admirals to 210 over the next few years — down from the high tide of 257 three years ago.

“We’ll go from 235 to 210 in our inventory of flag officers,” said Greenert, adding that flag boards had gotten “dramatically” tougher.

There were 1,147 sailors for every admiral as of February, an uptick from three years ago but still about half of what this closely watched ratio was in 1990, at the end of the Cold War.

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