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Cruise pay: CNO wants to reward fleet sailors on long deployments

Apr. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, which returned April 18 from a nine-month deployment, would've earned hundreds of dollars under a new plan that offers extra cash for sailors on deployments lasting more than 190 days.
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, which returned April 18 from a nine-month deployment, would've earned hundreds of dollars under a new plan that offers extra cash for sailors on deployments lasting more than 190 days. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Now that the era of six-month deployments is in the rearview mirror, Navy leaders are hammering out a plan to pad fleet sailors’ wallets.

The Navy wants to start a special pay for sailors on long deployments — where the average sailor could see an additional $500 to $1,000 in their pocket for each overseas cruise.

And depending on where you are in the world, that money could be tax-free.

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Bill Moran, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus are developing a plan to get this money into sailors’ pockets in the next year or two — making the Navy first among the services to pay out this special pay that has long been a priority for veterans’ organizations.

Navy Times has learned new details about the special pay, according to interviews with Navy leaders and defense officials familiar with the Navy’s proposal. If approved, here’s how high deployment allowance pay will work:

■ The pay kicks in after you’ve been deployed for 190 straight days.

■ Sailors will get about $250 — an exact amount hasn’t been determined — for every month they’re deployed beyond that point.

■ As the plan stands, the pay will not be prorated:Sailors will get their first full month’s worth of cash on Day 191, another payout on Day 221, and so on.

With carrier cruises now averaging about 260 days, or 8½ months, this special pay would mean a big boost to fleet sailors’ wallets.

The added dollars are part of a series of measures that leaders hope will keep sailors motivated and retention strong as the economy improves and the pace of operations remains high.

“With the longer deployments on top of all the changes to compensation, we really want this win for our sailors,” said a Navy official familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations. He estimated that 10,000 sailors would receive this pay every year.

One influential sailor advocacy organization said the Navy’s latest plan was especially needed now, with sailors and their families grappling with longer time apart.

Tom Snee, head of the Fleet Reserve Association and a former master chief career counselor, said the benefit is needed because of the uncertainty in today’s fleet.

“It’s not like the old days where you knew exactly when you were going to deploy and when you were going to get back,” he said in an April 17 phone interview. “At least with monetary compensation, it shows that the effort and hardship of long days at sea is appreciated and valued.”

'A real hardship'

For Navy brass, it’s about fairness and retention.

It’s not lost on Pentagon officials or lawmakers that the Navy is sending sailors on longer and longer deployments.

In a recent hearing, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., raised this concern to Greenert and Mabus.

“It’s my experience in going around and talking to people, the kids that are out there, that the deployments are just killing the families,” Inhofe said. “It’s a real hardship.”

To leadership, those hardships could cause sailors to start voting with their feet. The fleet has already seen a down-tick in retention among pilots, special operators and nukes as the tempo of operations has spiked. Combined with budget cuts and uncertainties about the fleet’s size, Navy leaders are worried that these downwardtrends in some communities could be a canary in a coal mine.

As a way of bringing back balance to the force, Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of Fleet Forces Command, has unveiled a new fleet deployment plan. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan calls for eight-month deployments to be the standard over a 36-month cycle, four months longer than the old cycle.

Their calculation is that the longer deployment time, yielding more overseas presence, will allow fleet leaders to better follow predictable schedules as long as a crisis doesn’t erupt.

This will yield more time at home per cycle than the six-month deployments offered before, fleet bosses say, as long as the service doesn’t deploy a ship for a second time during the 14-month sustainment period laid out in the OFRP.

Many stand to gain under the Navy’s plan. Sailors aboard the carrier Harry S. Truman, which returned April 18 from a nine-month deployment, would come back with an additional $750 or so in their pockets.

The rationale for the pay is that it might keep some sailors in who are near their stay-or-leave decision.

“These actions further incentivize and place value upon sea duty, aid in retaining needed skills, and act as levers to counter known retention behaviors in an improving national economy,” the Navy official said.

Never been done

There is one big hitch in this plan: It has never been paid out before.

The CNO and the CNP are calling for instituting the high deployment allowance, which was signed into law 14 years ago. It allows the service secretaries, like Mabus, to pay service members up to $1,000 for long deployments. The law defines a long deployment as one lasting more than 190 days.

HDA was intended to act as a kind of tax for over-deploying units — the law also requires that service members deployed more than 400 days in two years receive the pay.

But then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.Just as deployments were about to get longer, Defense Department officials suspended the allowance.

No service member has ever seen one dime of high deployment allowance in the 14 years since it became the law of the land.

There have been several attempts to resurrect the pay, but it has never been popular in Pentagon corridors. In 2008, when the Army was attempting to secure what it called “Warrior Pay” for soldiers deployed more than 12 months, DoD asked to repeal HDA to give the services more flexibility in defining what constituted a long deployment and how much to pay.

But the Navy has come around. For starters, the 190-day mark has for more than three decades been about the average length of a standard deployment. But as budget cuts triggered by sequestration took hold over the past three years, the Navy’s planning mechanisms were thrown into disarray. The ships that were most ready for deployments headed out over and over again.

That was the case with the carrier John C. Stennis, which in 2012 returned from a seven-month cruise, only to turn around and leave for an eight-month cruise half a year later. Retention took a hit on the Stennis, particularly in the reactor spaces, Moran said, adding that it has recovered since.

But with Navy leaders resigned to longer deployments becoming the new normal, the idea of bringing back HDA gained currency.

'A brake'

When the Navy studied the costs of paying the extra deployment money, they concluded it was reasonable and offered long-term retention benefits, said Bryan Clark, a former staffer for the CNO.

“It wasn’t all that expensive because it doesn’t affect that many people,” said Clark, a retired Navy commander who is now a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “And it pales in comparison to the cost of operating the ships.”

The higher costs are one selling point for turning on HDA, said the Navy official with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

“HDA is paid from operational and maintenance appropriations, and in the future could act as a brake on overutilization of the fleet,” he said.

For example, the roughly 5,000 sailors and airmen onboard the Stennis who made the double-pump deployments would have each walked away with about $750. That would add up to an added cost of about $4 million, had HDA been flowing at that time.

Clark said that when the discussion of paying HDA had surfaced in the past, it was met with opposition. DoD leaders were concerned about defining 190 days as a long deployment across each of the services. And the Army, which typically sends soldiers on nine-month or longer overseas rotations, would incur heavy payouts.

The Navy is working on another way to get the sailors money, which might be more palatable for other services.

That option would be to institute Hazardous Duty Pay-Tempo, or HDP-T. This option would be more attractive to other services, such as the Army, because it gives the service secretary greater leeway to define a long deployment.

Either way, the official said, the Navy is committed to the $250-range per month rate.

Cmdr. Scott McIlnay, a Joint Chiefs spokesman, said that a draft of the plan has not been forwarded to DoD or the Joint Chiefs, but that one is forthcoming.

“The Navy is working on a proposal that they intend to forward to [the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs],” McIlnay said in an email. “It’s not appropriate for me to comment on a Navy proposal, and nothing formal has been sent.”

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