A high-powered cohort of industry leaders and lobbyists has enlisted the help of 95 retired admirals and generals to pressure Congress to better fund the Navy, which, like the other services, faces heavy sequestration budget cuts in fiscal 2016.
The group, called Navy Now, kicked off its campaign with a Nov. 12 letter that warns Congress the "underfunded and overextended" Navy places national defense, service members, and the stability of the global economy at risk.
"Ships, crews and equipment cannot continue the current pace of operations, and the retention of trained personnel will suffer, ultimately leading to reduced readiness for combat and other missions," the letter stated. More than two-thirds of its signees retired with three or more stars, including one former Marine Corps commandant, one assistant commandant and four former vice chiefs of naval operations.
The Navy Now campaign, put together with help from a high-powered Washington, D.C., public relations firm, has roots in the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition and Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition, which advocate for and are funded by the ship building industry. As such, it has a vested interest in the Navy's budget. These groups are already concerned about previous budget cuts and the looming possibility of more, starting in fiscal 2016.
Failure to address these budget problems will create problems far larger than defense contracts, warned one of the letter's signers. But failure to fix the problem will adversely affect far more than defense contracts, according to one signee.
"People don't realize how dependent we are on the global commons — the sea, the air and the cyber domains," said retired Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, a former head of naval forces in Europe and Africa, who retired in 2010. Fitzgerald is a defense consultant based out of Jacksonville, Florida, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The world's population has nearly tripled in 60 years and sparked a fight for resources, he said. Instabilities in places such as the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Aden or the oil fields of the Middle East would have a direct, even disastrous effect on the national economy, and such instability will multiply in coming years.
"Our national strategy is lacking. It seems to be all over the map," Fitzgerald said. "You need a mobile force out there that ensures we have access to the markets that keep our economy running. If you don't invest in readiness you're going to be backed into a position where you can't influence the future."
In the letter, Navy Now said the sea services are "highly effective in deterring those nations and ideologies that would threaten the geopolitical and economic security of our country and the security of our allies," and pointed to the potential threat of China and Russia, which are modernizing and expanding their navies.
The ability to influence the future is most threatened by another sequestration round, which is scheduled for fiscal 2016. The previous round of sequestration forced deep cuts in shipyard capacity from which the Navy is still recovering — and from which the Navy's top shipfixer said some hulls may never recover. Fitzgerald said another round of sequestration would be "catastrophic" to a Navy that is in "a vulnerable place," and would put the country at great risk.
"If the Department of Defense has to take a hit in 2016 with sequestration, everything is just going to fall apart," said retired Rear Adm. Terence McKnight, former commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2, who's now an executive with defense contractor Cobham. "They have taken the low-hanging fruit so you're going to see some major cuts. And with major cuts, we're not going to be able to meet the commitments."
That scenario is already starting to unfold. For example, the Navy was unable to provide a big-deck amphib for disaster relief operations that followed Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year. The mission was covered by the carrier George Washington, which was relieved by dock landing ships Germantown and Ashland.
Indeed, the Gator Navy is laden with maintenance issues. Recognizing the lack of ships, the Marine Corps established special-purpose Marine air-ground task forces in Europe and the Middle East for quick response, but those are bound by host-nation agreements — and point to the need for a strong Navy. Fitzgerald pointed to the Islamic State campaign, where naval airpower was the only asset available for the first 55 days as a result of host-nation restrictions.
But the nation cannot continue on its present course and maintain such dominion from the sea, according to Navy Now officials.
"Strain on the Navy is invisible to the nation right now, and it is going to be too late by the time we figure out that we've pushed it too far," said Greg McCarthy, senior vice president of Powell Tate Strategic Communications, which also represents the companies that build and repair aircraft carriers.
That strain is very visible to sailors who comprise the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, which completed its second extended deployment in 18 months on Oct. 31. The carrier George H.W. Bush and its strike group returned Nov. 15 from a nine-month float of its own. It was replaced by the Carl Vinson, which expects to be underway for 10 months. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert called these extended deployments "unsustainable" and has ordered them to be cut to seven months. But there are a number of fiscal challenges the Navy must overcome to meet that goal.
The combination of high op tempo and deferred maintenance has left little or no surge capacity on the waterfront. A few years ago, the Navy could muster five carrier strike groups, either deployed or ready to deploy within 30 days. Today that number is down to three. That number will dip to one for a few months next year.
The carrier Harry S. Truman — which was supposed to launch the new deployment plan — was bumped up to deploy in the fall of 2015, nearly half a year ahead of schedule. The change was needed so the Navy could fix the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. The latter did back-to-back deployments with only a two-month break in between, then entered a year-long dry dock overhaul that ended in late August. However, there are lingering problems that need to be fixed before the ship returns to the fleet. However, a 30-percent growth in maintenance as well as shipyard issues will keep her in the yard into February 2015.
Carriers are not navigating these dire straits alone. Upwards of 60 percent of availabilities are not finishing on time. In addition to Ike, two attack subs are more than six months late and two guided missile submarines are more than year late. There is a back load of nearly 100 F-18s in the depot.
The Navy will have eliminated all its frigates by this time next year, and 11 of 22 cruisers as well as three dock landing ships have been placed in reduced operating status.
In its letter, Navy Now urged Congress to provide the full funding for ships and aircraft, personnel, maintenance, training and operations.
"We are concerned that if the Department of the Navy is required to continue to respond to crisis after crisis without the funding needed to build new ships, repair old equipment and provide routine maintenance to existing equipment, the nation risks permanent damage to our national defense and negative impacts on the domestic and international economies that rely on the safety and security that U.S. sea power provides," the letter stated.