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CNO predicts steady manning levels, outlines plans to shelve some ships

Mar. 9, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Adm. Jon Greenert Editorial Board
Adm. Jon Greenert, chief of naval operations, answers questions during a Feb. 25 editorial board with Navy Times. (Alan Lessig / Staff)
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The Air Force is looking to send home more than of 20,000 airmen this year. And the Army likely will be forced to slash four times as many soldiers in coming years.

But the Navy’s ranks are holding steady.

The Navy’s top officer believes the force, at 323,500 sailors, is the right size and sees his task as rebalancing the force to fill the thousands of open billets across the fleet.

“Our focus now needs to be to take that requisite number — about 323 to 324 [thousand] — and get the right skills in the right place at the right rank and trained with the right [Navy enlisted classifications],” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told Navy Times.

Greenert said he has no plans to shrink the ranks and is putting forward a proposal to temporarily dock 14 ships, an unusual measure that would help officials fill other open fleet jobs and save money short-term.

In the wide-ranging Feb. 25 interview, Greenert discussed his efforts to relieve the manpower strain on the fleet and to get the mix right. He also talked about new opportunities for engagement in the Pacific — and how sailors can take advantage of it.

Manpower outlook

The Navy plans to hold its manpower steady for the next few years at the 323,000-sailor mark.

The only thing that would alter this plan, Greenert warned, would be unforseen, large-scale cuts.

“We man equipment,” Greenert said. “We do not equip manning. I think the numbers are about right now for the number of people per unit. I have no intention during my watch to reduce manning for the sake of reduced manning.”

To be sure, deep force structure cuts are a possibility in the coming years. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that sequestration spending caps in fiscal year 2016, a year after the budget he outlined recently, would force the Navy to retire the aircraft carrier George Washington — a move that likely would be accompanied by end strength cuts. And continued sequestration could shrink the fleet.

But if the Navy gets the funding it seeks, then manpower will hold steady. Even putting the cruisers into lay-up will not affect manning, as some of those sailors will be reassigned to fill other open billets.

Asked whether he foresees keeping end strength at its current level in the coming years, Greenert replied: “Yes, I do. And we talked about the cruisers, we laid that out. We are not reducing in strength for that. Those folks go down into the same number of end strength.”

Greenert also says its high time for the Navy to improve sailors’ jobs and workplaces, a step necessary to retain talented people — everything from the conditions of the pier and the number of parking spaces available to whether sailors are fully trained or their supervisor is competent.

He says there’s work to be done.

“I think we need to work on quality of work. And it is something I have been pushing resources toward,” Greenert said, adding that this includes “single sailor barracks upgrades, school-house improvements ... simulators, from both small arms to flight to those things that, again, would help the sailors’ quality of work.”

“So I want to get that back in balance.”

Cruisers and Congress

In the interview, Greenert revealed new details about the Navy’s proposal to place half of its cruisers in a temporary lay-up status, essentially parking them at the pier until they receive their midlife overhauls.

The plan would tie up 11 cruisers and three amphibious dock landing ships, saving on operating costs and shotgunning much of the crew to other vessels until their hull heads into the shipyard — a plan that would spare ships while also relieving the Navy of some manning gaps. At any time, only 12 of the 14 ships involved would be in lay-up, Greenert said.

“What we wanted to do was make sure we got the most ship years out of this class of ship,” Greenert said. “We wanted to get them modernized as soon as feasible, again, to get the most out of it. And then we had budgetary issues.”

Greenert said the dock landing ship lay-ups were likely to begin in 2016, noting that two of the three would be operational at any time. He didn’t specify a time line for the cruisers.

“What you do is when the ship goes in and is laid up, if you will, you would prepare it so that it can be ...brought out as quickly as feasible,” Greenert said. “And there is a process. We have done this before. We would take those crew and those billets and rotate them into jobs in the Navy, other gaps at sea and ... critical billets ashore.”

Greenert said officials were still working through how large to leave a crew during this lay-up period.

Officials say the Navy is still finishing its proposal, which it will need to send to Congress. That’s where it gets dicey.

Two years ago, the Navy began dropping end strength based on a plan to retire seven cruisers and two dock landing ships. But lawmakers torpedoed the plan. Since then they’ve barred the service from using funds to decommission cruisers or dock landing ships. The law also prohibits them from moves to “inactivate” or “place in storage” any of the vessels.

The Navy will need to get skeptical lawmakers on board to enact its plan.

Funding has been another snag. At one point in 2013, fleet officials released guidance that bestowed some of the hulls with a highly unusual status: “Operational, not funded.” And there are rumors that some of the cruisers hardly, if ever, get underway.

Navy leaders say the latest cruiser plan is an attempt to keep all the vessels over the long term while pocketing some money in the short-term.

Ports and the Pacific 'pivot'

The Navy is strengthening ties to Malaysia, offering new opportunities for the fleet.

Malaysia is standing up its own marine corps and is looking to the U.S. Navy and Marines for advice on how to do it. Greenert said they want to continue participating in multination exercises such as the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training efforts and are looking for additional opportunities to to train alongside their American counterparts.

All this means — you guessed it — more Malaysian port calls.

Greenert visited Kota Kinabalu, a port that borders the strategically important South China Sea, during a weeklong trip to Asia in February. The city of half a million is working to better accommodate U.S. aircraft carriers.

“They are not ready to convert the piers and all yet so we can bring our carrier pierside,” Greenert said. “But they are willing to accommodate a carrier and do more when they anchor out. So increasing port visits and integrating Navy-Marine Corps.”

Greenert, who met with the head of the Royal Malaysian Navy, is also working to boost the number of P-3 Orion maritime patrols with the Malaysians.

CNO also met with another strategically located ally with growing naval ties on his Asia tour: the Philippines.

The Philippines and the U.S. are developing an access agreement that would up the American military footprint there, which Greenert referred to as “increased rotational presence.” The plan could allow the U.S. to boost the number of Marines on the island, increase the number of port visits and secure wider use of Filipino airfields and facilities, where the services could store supplies and gear needed to respond to disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the islands in November.

“Rotational” is the key phrase. Reopening historic bases like Subic Bay is a nonstarter for the Filipinos, who are nonetheless eager to bolster ties with the U.S. amid territorial disputes with China.

Greenert said he discussed the framework with Filipino officials.

“We talked about that and what the concepts may be in that from the perspective of port visits and what ports they would like to see us come in,” Greenert said in response to a question about the possibility of increased port calls. “They are really pretty much the same. It might be an increased manner.”

Greenert didn’t elaborate on the possibilities, saying those would depend on the final agreement diplomats are hashing out.

“We have to wait until that IRP is finished and then we will take it from there,” he said.

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