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Budget cuts trigger short-notice orders and extended tours

Nov. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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If you’re one of the nearly 17,000 sailors or officers due to transfer between now and the middle of June, get ready for a shakeup. Budget cuts are forcing some major changes to permanent change-of-station moves.

Some will be forced to move on shorter notice, meaning less time to sell your house, prepare your family and execute your move. Others may get stuck with extended tours.

Officials acknowledge it’s going to cause some anxiety for Navy families, but at the same time warn the Navy may be entering a “new normal” when it comes to PCS moves.

The reason? The Navy’s PCS budget between now and Jan. 14 is only one-third of what the service planned for. The shortfall is being blamed on Congress’ failure to reach a new budget agreement, forcing the service to operate on limited funds cut thinner by sequestration.

“The challenge for the sailors is they will likely see reduced lead times for getting their orders in hand,” said Rear Adm. John Alexander, the Navy’s top detailer, in an interview with Navy Times.

The Navy generally aims at getting orders out to sailors six months before they’re due to move. In 2013, the lead time averaged about four months. And with the latest round of cuts, the number may come in closer to three months or less.

“It just makes it hard for the sailors and their families to plan. And you don’t have your orders, you can’t schedule your move, sell your house or rent a house in the new location as well,” Alexander said. “All the family decisions that need to be made are delayed, causing stress for both the sailor and the family.”

And if the current budget challenges continue, Alexander said, “in the future fiscal environment, there may be a reduced, new normal for PCS funding — though we don’t know what that is, yet.”

Navy Times pressed the service for exact dollar figures, but officials were unable to produce them as of press time, because it’s “a moving target.”

“Efforts are ongoing to find possible ways to reprogram to help mitigate the shortfall,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.

The short-term spending bill Congress approved for the first half of the fiscal year ends in June, at which point funding could be restored.

However, Alexander warns that if PCS budgets continue to shrink, it would fundamentally change how the Navy approaches orders.

“We don’t know what the new normal will be in regards to PCS funding,” he said. “If you just look at where we are fiscally, a common sense approach will tell you we’re probably going to get less than we have in the past — how we use that remains to be seen, but we will have to live within our budget.”

On the bright side, this year’s problem could have been much worse. The moves of about 42,000 sailors and officers could have been disrupted, Alexander said, but the Navy was able to use last year’s money to “buy ahead” on some PCS moves.

About two years ago, the Defense Department changed its PCS rule, allowing Navy officials to fund PCS moves not expected to take place until future fiscal years. With that in mind, the Navy bought ahead on 25,000 moves slated to happen in early fiscal 2014, meaning only 17,000 sailors are left to feel the pain, or about 5 percent of the fleet.

Moving forward, buying PCS moves for future years is much less likely. Under these conditions, PCS priority will be given to the following scenarios:

Global support assignment rotations. These are sailors either going to or returning from boots-on-the-ground individual assignments in war zones either with Navy units or serving with other services.

Career milestone billets. These are moves for officers moving to critical jobs for their career paths where timing is also relevant — for example, billets such as commanding officer tours or executive officers slated to “fleet up.”

Critical readiness fills. These are sailors tapped to fill an unplanned loss — if someone breaks a leg and is unable to deploy, for example. It also applies to units who are tabbed for unexpected deployments who need critical billets filled to meet the mission requirements.

Gaps at sea. This includes units either deployed or working up to deploy.

Training pipeline needs, such as sailors making initial accession moves. While this includes initial entry sailors coming from boot camp and their initial occupational “A” and “C” schools, it also applies to sailors receiving advanced training on the way to critical sea billets.

Officials say all other moves will come after these priority billets are filled.

While short-notice orders will cause anxiety for all involved, delayed transfers are more likely to be a mixed bag for sailors.

Say you’re living in San Diego and working for a nice boss — maybe a few extra months on the that job won’t be a problem. But if you’ve been counting down the days, hours and minutes until your next command, you may feel screwed.

Alexander’s advice is to communicate.

“It’s going to impact some people more than others, and if sailors have questions, we want them to call their detailers — we want sailors and their families to be informed,” he said. “So if their detailer doesn’t have the answer, we’ll get the answer. We don’t want sailors to get their information through the rumor mill.”

If you’re up for orders, Alexander said there is nothing different for you to do, procedurewise.

“Sailors need to continue to apply when the orders negotiating window is open to them, and we’ll continue to make assessments on who is the right sailor in the right skill set for the right job,” he said.

Long term changes

Because future transfer funds hinges on a Congress-approved budget, it could be months before a clearer long-term picture is determined.

Alexander said it’s too early to speculate.

But sources tell Navy Times that there are a number of ideas on the table, each of which could help the Navy stretch more value out of limited transfer funds.

Some of those ideas include:

New tour length standards. Right now, officials say, there are no plans to change the current sea-to-shore flow, the policies which mandate lengths of sea tours for each enlisted occupational field. However, officials said involuntary extensions for enlisted sailors could become more regular. This would not likely impact sailors expected to move into critical billets, either at sea or on shore.

Mega JO tours. On the officer side of the house, officials are rethinking how junior officer tours are doled out. Most division officer tours are split, with two, 18-month tours at different commands. It’s possible JOs would be tapped for a single extended tour at one command.

More homesteading. Sailors who stay in a single geographic area for two or more tours are said to be “homesteading.” But anything longer than back-to-back tours has long been discouraged by Big Navy — not only to suit the service’s global needs, but also to enhance a sailor’s career by having him serve in different areas. About 23 percent of sailors choose to stay in their current geographic area today. For some sailors, this gives them family stability — for example, while children are in high school.

Though there are no plans to make this an official policy, detailers are expected to be more willing to work with sailors hoping to homestead. It could also mean more “no cost” transfers to commands in the same geographic area.

But Alexander said each sailor’s situation is different. The first step is expressing your wishes with your command and detailer as soon as possible.

As the effects of the PCS changes become clearer, Alexander said sailors who are in “untenable” situations with the move or their families should speak up to their command and detailer, as well.

Sam Fellman contributed to this report.

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