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Your Navy in the new year: 19 things to know

Jan. 6, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Seabee fire crew served weapons
The U.S./NATO mission in Afghanistan will wrap up at the end of 2014, but the future presence of American troops there, including Seabee units and Navy individual augmentees, remains unclear. Here, a sailor on convoy security with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15 participates in marksmanship training in June at Camp Leatherneck. (MC2 Daniel Garas / Navy)
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Send us what you’re looking forward to in 2014. Include your name, rate/rank and hometown in an email to navylet@navytimes.com and your response could appear in an upcoming issue of Navy Times.

A new deployment plan. A steady advancement rate. A new uniform — maybe more than one.

More time at sea. More women on submarines. More ports to visit.

Fewer sailors — and soldiers and airmen and Marines — on the ground in Afghanistan.

The new year will bring new challenges and new approaches to solving old ones, everything from advancements in unmanned aircraft to a fleetwide program to reduce red tape.

A few things you need to know as 2014 begins:

1. Advancements, end strength steady. While other services could cut tens of thousands of troops from their rolls over the coming year, the Navy’s allowed active-duty end strength at the end of fiscal year 2014 stands at 323,600, according to the recent defense authorization act — within a few hundred of current manning levels.

So as service members in other forces brace for a rough road to advancement, attrition programs designed to encourage voluntary separation or even enlisted retention boards — for E-9s, in some cases — the Navy can stand pat on prior promises that severe force-shaping tactics aren’t on the drawing board.

Unless the budget battle heats up again.

Navy officials have said repeatedly that manning levels are tied to the needs of the fleet, so if future budget cuts shrink shipbuilding programs or delay maintenance to the point of fewer deployments, the Navy could end up with fewer sailors.

But for now, the Navy expects advancements in the petty officer ranks to stay near recent averages — some of the best figures in more than a decade. Last cycle’s 27.71 percent opportunity slipped a bit from the nearly 29 percent who moved up in the spring.

If manning cuts are coming, expect commanders to crack down on low-level misconduct, simply because they can. Those who are fortunate enough to make rank and stay in uniform probably will end up doing more with less. Keep your ear to the ground in February, when the Pentagon sends its annual budget request to Congress. That’s when the real extent of the problem is likely to be revealed.

2. New deployment plan. It’s been a hectic year for deployments, and that’s not expected to change much in 2014.

“The next three carrier strike group deployments are looking to be close to nine months,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert in a Navy video posted online Dec. 19. “But after these next three deployments, which will take us through 2014 into 2015, we’ll probably migrate to about eight months in our carriers for a deployment length.”

Greenert — who was filmed aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, which is in the middle of a nine-month cruise — said that cruises will be generally shorter for other ships: 7½ months for amphibious ready groups and six months for submarines.

Truman’s relief, the George H.W. Bush, will deploy for about nine months, and the Carl Vinson will deploy for nearly 10 months before carrier schedules return to an eight-month “new normal,” officials say.

One of the biggest challenges is the shifting schedules due to crises, such as the standoff with Syria in late summer. The Pentagon quickly assembled a fearsome strike force, but many of the ships later returned from deployments that ranged out to 10 months.

Fleet bosses are determined to try to inject more predictability into deployments. They believe that sailors will prefer sailing on an eight-month cruise over leaving for six months and being extended for two more months, when they and their families already had expected a reunion.

Fleet leaders are expected to unveil a revised deployment plan in early 2014 that lengthens the deployment cycle from 32 to 36 months, with nominal seven- to eight-month cruises. Officials believe they’ll be able to hew to an eight-month standard, in most cases, and inserted the four extra months to serve as a buffer so that unforeseen events don’t derail long-planned maintenance schedules.

The bottom line for sailors, officials say, is better predictability.

3. New flame-resistant coveralls. Sailors underway will soon have a new standby: the blue flame-resistant coveralls being handed out to fleet commands in early 2014. It’s a garment designed to better protect sailors in the chaotic first moments of a blaze, when crew members are scrambling to respond — or escape.

The flame-resistant variant coveralls have the same design as the poly-cotton utility coveralls now worn; like the Navy working uniform, those utility coveralls lack flame resistance and include synthetic fibers susceptible to melting. Fabric in the new coveralls doesn’t melt — its fibers will self-extinguish, preventing the garment from catching fire.

The fleet commanders, Adm. Bill Gortney and Adm. Cecil Haney, directed these new and improved coveralls be rapidly designed and fielded to the fleet. Each sailor serving with a fleet command will get two sets, handed out by their command. (These are not seabag items, and sailors won’t have to pay out of pocket for them.)

But not everyone is getting them: Submarine sailors will continue to wear utility coveralls until a low-lint flame-resistant coverall is designed, officials say.

The new coveralls spell the end of underway wear of the poly-cotton coveralls and the Type I “aquaflage” NWUs, a uniform designed to be a fleet mainstay. Both of these uniforms are seabag items, however, and it is unknown whether the Navy will continue to issue them after the utility coveralls are effectively phased out.

The larger and more difficult question is whether the Navy will stay with the NWUs, which can still be worn pierside and ashore. Officials recently invested in many popular NWU items like the parka and the fleece. But lawmakers eager to constrain Pentagon spending view service-specific cammies, like the NWU, as a luxury that the Navy can ill afford.

While these discussions continue, uniform officials say the NWU will be produced and worn in 2014.

“I don’t see the NWU going away,” said one personnel official familiar with the discussions. “There’s no plans afoot to do away with the NWU for in-port and ashore use.”

4. More uniform updates. Beyond the coming coveralls, 2014 promises to be another eventful year for uniforms.

Sailors may get their chance to try new, lightweight NWUs. With a lighter material but the same design, these garments are supposed to be more breathable for sailors in tropical regions.

Uniform officials say the new design will be indistinguishable from the current NWUs. They hope to wear test it in 2014 with more than 300 sailors at a variety of commands.

Officials will also be overseeing fit tests of female uniforms early this year. In these tests, female enlisted will wear “Dixie cups” and service dress blue uniforms — blouses and jumpers — while female chiefs and officers try on newly designed combination covers built to look like the round covers worn by their male peers.

The uniforms have been a priority for Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and the fit tests will start by May.

Uniform officials also are compiling wear-test responses from sailors who tested parkas last winter. Greenert wants to outfit sailors in chilly regions with a heavy-duty jacket: The two options are a three-in-one parka worn by the Coast Guard or a thick, waterproof jacket worn by the Canadian navy.

Officials expect to select a parka design in 2014, but they’re back to the drawing board on another item — the jogging suit. The latest version, an off-the-shelf warmup suit designed by apparel maker New Balance, frayed too quickly during testing.

Officials say they’re examining new materials. In the meantime, sailors will have to keep wearing their sweats.

5. Aviation milestones. The F-35C Lightning II’s tailhook troubles, acknowledged by manufacturer Lockheed Martin in early 2012, may be near an end: Tests on the arresting gear are underway, with certification likely early in the new year.

That’ll lead to the next big milestone for the Navy’s joint strike fighter — the first at-sea tests from a carrier, expected to begin this fall. Weapons qualifications for the fighter, which is scheduled to achieve initial operational capability in 2018 at the earliest, also are set for this year.

In the unmanned realm, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, a helicopter with longer range and a larger payload capacity, could make an early deployment in the coming year, though its IOC isn’t planned until 2016. The MQ-8C made its first flight in November at Naval Base Ventura County, Calif.

Tests of the X-47B unmanned combat air system will continue into the new year, with two concrete goals outlined by the National Defense Authorization Act: By Oct. 1, Congress wants the jet to be able to link up with a tanker and refuel in midair.

6. Pacific pivot continues. The nation’s focus is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, driven by increasing tensions between an assertive China and its neighbors.

Sailors will reap at least some benefits from it: more port calls, including new locales.

Port visits and exercises are critical tools to the Navy’s so-called “soft power” strategy — a way to reward friendly nations and deter adversaries. They are also an important gesture to build trust and military-to-military ties, with one of the largest set for 2014, when a Chinese navy vessel joins the multination Rim of the Pacific exercise for the first time.

In addition, ships are visiting the Philippines more frequently and helped broaden ties to that nation with their robust and rapid response to Typhoon Haiyan. The Navy is setting up Singapore as a base for four littoral combat ships by 2020 (three more will be based in Japan). And the Marines, as part of training up Australia’s amphibious forces, are rotationally deploying to Darwin, on the country’s north coast. They are building up to a full Marine Air-Ground Task Force — of roughly 2,500 Marines — over the next few years. The Navy will be there, too.

“We’ll provide the lift for that,” Greenert said of the latest move of 1,100 sailors and Marines to Darwin in the spring of 2014.

Officials have said that LCS and amphibious ships are likely to visit Darwin more often to support the Marines and transport them around the region.

Greenert and his staff are also working on deepening ties to the Chinese navy as a means of building trust and mechanisms needed to prevent miscalculation, exposed as sorely needed in the December near-miss between a Chinese warship and the cruiser Cowpens.

Greenert has raised the possibility of joint fleet exercises and officer and senior enlisted exchanges between the navies. Another opportunity may be a joint humanitarian mission, using both services’ hospital ships, Greenert said.

7. Arctic pivot? The once-frozen landscape of the globe’s most northern reaches is becoming rapidly more navigable with each passing year. With this in mind, the Defense Department in November released its Arctic strategy, a set of guidelines and goals for military involvement in the region going forward.

“Traffic in the Northern Sea Route is reportedly expected to increase tenfold this year compared to … last year,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in his official announcement.

While the Navy has no hard-and-fast Arctic plans going into 2014, according to spokeswoman Lt. Courtney Hillson, Greenert wrote on his blog Nov. 1 that the service was working to update its official Arctic Road Map.

To do that, Task Force Climate Change commander Rear Adm. Jon White put together a team of experts from various Navy offices, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Ice Center, the Coast Guard and academia to lay out a likely timeline for the Navy’s increased involvement in the Arctic.

Their report found that areas like the Bering Sea could have as many as 200 days of open water a year by 2020, and other previously impassible regions will become increasingly more open for transit.

“Demand for search-and-rescue and disaster relief operations may grow as activity increases in the region,” Greenert said. “Initially, these will likely consist of episodic support to Coast Guard operations; over time, periodic deployments of U.S. Navy ships may be needed in the Arctic.”

That could mean more search-and-rescue and maritime security training for sailors as those limited Arctic engagements near.

8. New jobs for female sailors. This year brought an end to the Defense Department’s ban on women in combat roles, requiring the services to make plans to integrate women into previously closed jobs, or make a case for why the specialties should remain off-limits.

The Navy has until July to study how it would integrate women into SEAL units. If the study proves positive, women could enter boot camp in the fall of 2015 with the intention of becoming a SEAL and enter special warfare training the following spring.

Those specifics have yet to be sorted out, but other opportunities for women will present themselves soon. Four women became the first to complete Coastal Riverine Force training in late 2012, and more followed in 2013.

When Congress makes the final decision to open those units — a move that’s been expected for the past few months — 270 riverine jobs will be available to women, according to a recent Associated Press report.

And though it’s been in the works since 2010, the Navy will cut orders in 2014 for the first six women to serve aboard fast-attack submarines, the Virginia and Minnesota, homeported in Groton, Conn.

Two Supply Corps and four nuclear-trained female officers will report for duty no later than January 2015, according to an October Navy release.

Submarine Force commander Vice Adm. Michael Connor said he next plans to select two Pearl Harbor-based submarines to welcome women in 2016.

9. Steady TA. While the entire Defense Department sorts out how to pay tuition assistance in the face of budget cuts, the Navy’s personnel boss has been as clear as can be with what sailors can expect in 2014.

“TA is not going to be touched or changed anytime soon,” Vice Adm. Bill Moran said Dec. 19 in a message to sailors. “We don’t plan to cut it.”

It’s good news for those interested in furthering their education next year — the Navy even opened early applications for classes that begin in the second quarter of fiscal 2014, meaning you can apply now instead of waiting until the start of the quarter.

It’s also a departure from remarks made by Greenert in November, when he suggested the TA options for 2015 and beyond could include a return to the 75-25 cost-sharing model, in which sailors bore a quarter of their education expenses. That plan — used in the past by the Navy and recently instituted by the Coast Guard — appears to be off Moran’s radar.

10. In-state tuition push. For vets eager to further their education, lawmakers in the House and Senate worked on bills to push colleges and universities to automatically offer in-state tuition, regardless of whether the former service member resides in that state. They were unable to pass them into law in 2013.

The effort will continue in 2014, and it could make a big difference in how much vets have to pay for school and where they can go.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of in-state tuition at public schools. But any extra costs associated with out-of-state tuition are not covered, which sometimes forces vets to pay the difference themselves. And that’s not a small amount: In the 2012-13 school year, in-state tuition averaged $8,655 while out-of-state tuition averaged $21,706, according to the College Board.

Bills in Congress aim to address the problem, which is common for service members often forced to relocate by Uncle Sam, by requiring public colleges and universities to either offer state residency waivers to veterans or lose all eligibility to accept the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This would likely mean that vets 100 percent eligible for the GI Bill could attend more schools with no out-of-pocket costs. Yet it would also likely shrink the number of schools at which vets can use their Post-9/11 benefit.

11. The end of Afghanistan? One way or another, 2014 will bookend the post-2001 period of U.S. military warfare in the Middle East. The nation’s longest war is slated to formally end next December, when the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan expires. And while many Pentagon officials have long insisted that the U.S. military will maintain an enduring presence there, the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai is raising serious questions about whether the U.S. commander in chief might just tell all his troops to pack up and leave, just as they did from Iraq at the end of 2011.

That question will linger for many months into the new year. A betting sort probably would say the good money is on some number of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan. But the numbers will be small, no more than 10,000. And the mission will be different: The 14-year operation known as Enduring Freedom will get a new name. And most people, in and outside the military, will stop calling it a war.

For the youngest troops who were in the first grade when a passenger jet struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, that will be an extraordinary change.

12. ‘Fat Leonard’ fallout. The Navy has been rocked by four months of fallout from a spreading scandal that has forced the service to sever hundreds of millions in contracts with a primary husbanding company and suspend another.

In the unusual revelations, two commanders and a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent were apprehended for allegedly accepting bribes and feeding confidential information to one of the contracting firms, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, one of 7th Fleet’s primary husbanding companies. GDMA — known for its larger-than-life chief executive, Leonard Glenn Francis, often known in Navy circles as “Fat Leonard” because of his waistline — had overseen port services for more than two decades in ports of call such as Malaysia and Thailand. Prosecutors allege that GDMA overcharged the Navy and leaned on a few 7thFleet staffers to steer ships to ports where he could charge more.

The NCIS agent, John Beliveau, pleaded guilty, which many believe comes as part of a plea deal to help the government’s case. In addition, the Navy has removed two O-6s from command and pulled security clearances for two admirals. One of them, Vice Adm. Ted Branch, the head of naval intelligence, is back at work but not using his security clearance, officials say.

The Navy severed more than $200 million in GDMA contracts in November. A second husbanding firm, Inchcape Shipping Services, allegedly overcharged the Navy in separate port calls in Africa and Southeast Asia and has been barred from entering into new contracts with federal agencies.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has ordered an audit of all husbanding contracts and revisions to port services rules, including more reliance on fixed-price items and providing more guidance and support for commanding officers deployed overseas.

“I would rather get bad headlines than let bad people get away,” Mabus said during a Dec. 20 Pentagon news press conference, emphasizing that it was Navy personnel who first tipped off investigators about GDMA in 2010, revelations that led to investigations by five agencies, including the Justice Department.

Francis, who’s now in custody in San Diego, is a well-known figure among ship COs, supply officers and fleet leaders, and many are concerned that the fallout could spread.

Mabus said it was important to get to the bottom of any alleged malfeasance — even in cases where the misconduct doesn’t warrant criminal charges.

He announced he will appoint a panel — known as a “consolidated disposition authority” and led by a four-star admiral — to review and resolve all cases involving Navy officers and civilians.

Asked whether more officers would be implicated, Mabus said: “I think it’s fair to say that there will be more disclosures coming in GDMA. What kind of disclosures those are, I’m not at liberty to say.”

13. Changes to PCS system? When budget cuts led to sailors getting shorter notice on upcoming permanent change-of-station moves, officials said the fleet might need to adjust to “a new normal” when it came to PCS-ing.

That plan could change, if the Navy’s top enlisted man has his way.

“We don’t like it any more than they do,” Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens said in an interview published by the Navy in December. “Hopefully, in the very near future, we can get back to that five- and six-month advance notice for PCS orders. That’s our goal.”

Lead time for sailors in 2013 averaged about four months.

Long-term changes that could blunt the budget cuts include longer tours and the chance for more sailors to “homestead” — make multiple tours in a single geographic area. It’s unlikely these major changes will be implemented in the coming year, but discussions could move in these directions throughout 2014.

14. Rota, Aegis Ashore approach. Sailors will get a few more opportunities to be stationed in Europe in 2014.

The first two destroyers are slated to shift their home ports to Rota, Spain, this year to serve as ballistic-missile defense ships in 6th Fleet. The Ross and Donald Cook will be the first pair to make the trip, with the Porter and Carney planning to relocate in 2015.

The destroyer crews expect a fairly high pace of operations: a four-month patrol, followed by four months of upkeep and training, and then another patrol.

But it has the advantage, one ship commanding officer said, of being more predictable than schedules for stateside ships.

Another plan in motion is the Aegis Ashore missile defense site, which is being built in rural Romania. After it comes online in 2015, the site will be manned 24-7 by crews of Navy officers and sailors whose job it will be to detect and intercept an incoming missile at a moment’s notice.

Officials already are recruiting about 215 sailors and civilians to run the missile defense site and surrounding support facility, which will provide logistics and security. Aegis Ashore features a three-story tall “deckhouse” with SPY-1 radar arrays and a nearby missile magazine for launching interceptors.

Detailers are posting job openings on the online career management website. The first sailors are expected to arrive in the summer.

15. Showdown in the war on paperwork. For the Navy’s fight against unnecessary red tape, 2014 will be the year the rubber meets the road.

A task force spent the latter half of 2013 canvassing sailors and officers for the biggest time-wasters they face in their daily duties, then brainstorming ways to fix them.

The Reducing Administrative Distractions campaign is unique in harnessing sailor ideas systematically and using an website that allows other sailors, whether a peer or a four-star admiral, to comment and develop them.

RAD has addressed some of the fleet’s biggest headaches: maintenance, personnel programs, paperwork and more paperwork.

Among the innovative ideas the fleet has developed: overhauling the maintenance program; using WiFi to improve maintenance and training; designing a web portal to all Navy websites (so you don’t need to recall dozens of passwords); and a “SailorWiki” website where sailors could create and share content.

Task force leaders are developing plans to implement the ideas and working with the commands that manage them. But to be successful, they’ll have to contend with red tape and bureaucratic inertia — even the two-star overseeing the program admits success is far from certain.

The coming year likely will be the first one where sailors see the fruits of their ideas, and will prove whether RAD is a game-changer or a distraction.

Officials expect to award cash prizes to those who came up with the best ideas.

16. New sleep studies. The importance of rest for ship and submarine sailors got a boost this year, and there are studies underway into 2014 to assess how to improve sailors’ lives and work conditions.

Nita Shattuck, a human performance expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., is a sleep evangelist who believes that well-rested sailors make better watchstanders and war fighters — and that fleet leaders need to make rest a priority.

She is studying crew sleep on the deployed aircraft carrier Nimitz, where some watchstanders wear sleep-tracking watches. And she’s working closely with the destroyer Benfold in its trial of a three-hours-on-watch, nine-hours-off rotation underway — an arrangement that’s becoming more popular with ship crews.

A mounting body of evidence shows that quality sleep improves performance and is also critical to long-term health. Indeed, new studies have found that long-term night-shift workers have a higher incidence of mental health issues and cancer.

Shattuck and her NPS researchers, typically midcareer officers, are mounting a campaign to improve the fleet’s slumber. Some of their suggestions:

■ Berthing assignments by watches. Everyone in the berthing compartment will be off duty at the same time, minimizing the amount of footsteps, conversations and other sleep interrupters.

■ Quiet ship. Reduce the amount of shipboard announcements to a minimum, especially during the periods when some of the watchstanders and shift-workers are sleeping.

■ Thicker curtains. Benfold is examining ways to thicken its curtains to block out sound and light, the two biggest sleep impediments. Studies have shown it’s especially hard to fall asleep after seeing a bright light.

17. Retirees back into Prime. Under a plan that the Pentagon has had in the works for several years but only recently unveiled in full, about 171,000 retirees and their family members were pushed out of Tricare Prime when the Defense Department decided to strictly enforce Prime Service Areas as within 40 miles of a current military medical facility or within 40 miles of a closed facility on a base that had shut down under the base realignment and closure process.

For much of the past decade, Prime had a wide reach, with defense officials believing it was more economical. But the savings have not materialized.

So as of Oct. 1, those retirees and families had to switch to Tricare Standard, with its higher out-of-pocket costs. That sparked outrage within the retiree community and its advocates in Washington. And lawmakers swiftly listened: Under a provision of the recently passed NDAA, the retirees and family members who lost Tricare Prime in October will have the chance to opt back in.

When and how they will be able to do this, however, remains to be seen. Pentagon officials have said they must follow procedural rules and study the issue, publish federal notices and solicit comment from the public before it can act.

18. BAH rollbacks?As the Pentagon leadership adjusts to the long-term reality of the budget cuts known as sequestration, personnel programs are in the cross hairs. And none is centered more than the basic housing allowance. The bean-counters have their eyes on that $20 billion annual budget that helps about 1 million troops pay their monthly rent. It’s not part of “basic compensation,” but for many troops, BAH helps pay a big portion of the monthly bills.

Troops could see a return to the 1990s rules, when BAH was intended to cover only about 80 percent of average rental housing costs, with troops expected to cough up the rest out of pocket. Or the entire system might be simplified, scaled back and given a new name. One reason it’s a target is that the Defense Department many not need congressional approval to make such changes (unlike many other big-ticket personnel programs). Details likely will come in February, when the Defense Department unveils its annual budget plans.

19. SECNAV’S to-do list. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has held his job for more than four years now, longer than any SECNAV since 1998. Entering the new year, he’s already among the longest-serving Navy secretaries since the creation of the Defense Department.

He’s got no plans to go anywhere in 2014, though.

“Secretary Mabus is quite happy being secretary of the Navy and is tremendously proud to be serving the more than 900,000 sailors, Marines, and civilians and their families around the world,” spokes­woman Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence told Navy Times.

Mabus already has a few things on his plate for 2014, including the uniform initiatives mentioned above and the “Farm to Fleet” program, a joint venture with the Agriculture Department to purchase biofuels in 2014 and start powering ships with them by mid-2015.

The initiative is a step forward in Mabus’s 3-year-old campaign to “green the fleet.”

Biofuels “will give us an alternative fuel source and help lessen our dependence on foreign oil,” he said in a Dec. 11 news release.

Other priorities include moving forward with the 21st-century Sailor and Marine initiatives, maintaining a strong shipbuilding base, promoting energy security, and strengthening partnerships with industry, educational institutions, communities and foreign allies.

Staff writers Mark D. Faram, Sam Fellman and Meghann Myers contributed to this report.

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