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With thousands of fleet jobs still open, Navy officials are moving to sweeten the deal to induce more sailors back to sea this year.
Their offerings — significantly higher sea pay and a new deployment pay — could put hundreds, and in many cases thousands, back in sailors’ wallets when the changes take effect.
Leaders are looking to boost career sea pay for the first time in 13 years and are proposing a new and generous payout for sailors on longer deployments, where sailors deployed for 190 days consecutive would begin receiving up to $1,000 a month from high deployment allowance pay, which has been suspended since 2001.
Personnel officials believe the suspension will likely be lifted soon and say they view it as an obligation to start paying fleet sailors more for all the hard work — and time away from families — a deployment entails.
“I don’t look at this as an incentive; I look at this as the right thing to do,” Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel, told Navy Times in an exclusive interview. “If we’re going to ask sailors to do longer deployments, then we better be ready to compensate them.”
The pay boosts are intended to plus-up a fleet straining from manning gaps, longer deployments and shifting schedules. They come in tandem with the unveiling of a new deployment plan, one fleet officials hope will make ship schedules more “predictable” and lock in eight-month deployments for carrier strike groups. That’s a drop from today’s carrier cruises that are pushing nine months.
“We’re trying to get our deployment lengths back in line to an eight-month deployment,” Adm. Bill Gortney, the fleet’s top boss, said in a Jan. 15 interview. “Right now, we’re averaging anywhere from nine to 10 months for all of our carriers and our destroyers, especially the [ballistic-missile defense] ships, and our [amphibious ready group] ships.”
Gortney’s plan aims to lock in eight-month cruises for carriers and the air wings and the escort ships that sail with them — nearly 85 percent of the fleet. These changes likely will end up affecting amphibs and the sub force after they take effect, strike group by strike group, starting in November 2014 with the Truman CSG.
Better sea pay
Sea pay rates haven’t changed since 2001, even as the ensuing 13 years have put a premium on deployed ships to support wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Personnel officials admit inflation has cut deeply into sailors’ sea pay — and are determined to fix it.
After personnel experts were consulted to find ways to make sea duty more attractive, they realized the pay hadn’t been adjusted for a long time.
“So it’s lost a significant amount of value due to inflation over that time,” Moran said Jan. 16. “We proposed to [the chief of naval operations] and [the Navy secretary] that we take a look at adjusting career sea pay table to include the sea pay premium kicker that comes, especially on the enlisted front because that’s where we have the gap.”
The sea pay premium is an additional $100 that kicks in for sailors who’ve been in sea duty billets for more than 36 months. Sea duty pay is based on sea time and rank and can vary from $50 for a seaman to $700 for a warrant officer.
While sea pay has been stagnant, other allowances have risen significantly. Basic pay, the housing allowance and the subsistence allowance have all risen by 61 percent for the average sailor, personnel officials said.
Moran said he has proposed “catching up career sea pay with inflation,” an idea the CNO and SECNAV are “very keen on moving forward.” Moran wasn’t able to offer specific figures until the Navy works out the funding through their annual budget request.
The Navy could increase sea pay by 61 percent to match the rise to other pays. Moran’s plan is for “catching up” sea pay to inflation, which is roughly 31 percent since 2001. An example: A petty officer third class with two years’ sea time gets a monthly stipend of $160. If that pay went up just 30 percent — similar to the Moran proposal — the same third class would receive $208.
Over a year, that’s a pay boost of $576.
The sea pay raise would also be substantial for officers and senior enlisted. A chief with seven years’ sea time, who now gets $375, for instance, would get $487.50 with the same 30 percent raise. That’s a $1,350 raise over a year.
The initial sea pay boost is for enlisted, where the greatest manning challenges are, but hikes to officer sea pay are also in the works, one Navy official said.
And sailors could make even more if another proposal takes effect, as personnel officials hope.
Long deployment pay
If the nation needs sailors to spend even more time away from home, the Navy thinks they should be paid for it.
Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon suspended high deployment allowance pay, which would have allowed the Navy to pay a sailor deployed for longer than 190 straight days up to $1,000 a month.
The pay upped the burden on extending sailors’ cruises and ensured that they were fairly compensated. But because of the suspension, no one was ever paid it.
Navy officials think that’s about to change, with the Afghanistan War grinding to an end.
“We think the likelihood that suspension will be lifted at some point and we would be better prepared for that if we’re going to do the longer deployments, as we’ve articulated in the [Optimized Fleet Response Plan],” Moran said.
“We are committed to that,” Moran continued. “We will pay that when the waiver is lifted, and we proposed a dollar amount for that, but I have to wait for the secretary to decide what level he’s comfortable with.”
The pay would be a significant windfall for many fleet sailors. At a rate of $1,000 a month, each crew member aboard the destroyer Shoup, which returned in November from a 10-month cruise, would have received $3,000.
The crew of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, slated to leave on a nine-month cruise in February, could count on an extra $2,000 a person.
Officials are still working out the compensation specifics but believe that by the time the new deployment plan goes into effect in a year, the Navy may be authorized to pay out high deployment allowances.
“We’re hopeful that by 2015 or 2016 when OFRP kicks in and we’re going on these deployments that are longer than six months that we’ll be able to compensate sailors for that — officers and enlisted,” Moran said.
Fixing fleet manpower remains the Navy’s top priority, with thousands of billets open. Personnel officials say the fleet remains short of 7,508 billets, a figure that some fleet officials believe understates the gaps by thousands. Officials plan to plug more of the fleet’s manning gaps using many carrots — and some sticks.
Officials say that, in some cases, they’ll have to pull sailors off shore duty to fill in gaps at sea.
Moran said they’ll try to minimize those moves as much as they can, saying the expected numbers of involuntary transfers “aren’t huge.”
The deployment plan
Officials laid out the new deployment plan with the hope that extending a CSG deployment cycle to 36 months will return a measure of predictability back to sailors’ and spouses’ lives.
The new plan syncs all of the ships in a carrier strike group to the same 36-month rotation deployment cycle — nine months longer than a typical destroyer’s rotation.
Gortney said his plan for eight-month cruises will lower the stress of sailors and their families.
“We think eight months is about at the limit of a sustainable model to keep sailors and their families in the Navy,” Gortney said Jan. 15. “Now eight months may sound like a long time. When I grew up, it was a six-month [deployment] — at the time ... we thought was the level. But that was a six-month in a 24-month turnaround.”
The OFRP is an outgrowth of the enhanced carrier presence plan laid out last year. That plan called for two seven-month deployments in each training cycle. It would have effectively doubled the amount of forward-deployed carrier presence, but was contingent on $2.4 billion that never arrived.
OFRP is the next best chance to meet the Navy’s now-lower demands for two forward-deployed carrier strike groups year-round, one in 5th Fleet and the other in the Asia-Pacific (currently being filled by the forward-deployed flattop George Washington).
Gortney said the Navy had gotten too used to adjusting training and maintenance periods to generate as much deployed time as possible. No longer. Those periods are locked in. That and the scheduled eight-month cruise will return “predictability” to sailors’ lives, Gortney emphasized.
But the plan also allows the service to surge ships forward during the 14-month sustainment phase, which starts after the ship returns from deployment.
The upside, Gortney said, is that his plan calls for sailors to spend much more time at home. As long as they don’t deploy during the sustainment phase, they’ll spent 68 percent of each cycle at home.
“That’s really high,” Gortney said. “We’re not anywhere close to that right now. And so an eight-month deployment in a three-year period, ... we think that that’s going to be sustainable to our sailors.
“But it’s right at the edge, we think. And we don’t want to go over that,” he said.