It's the Navy's biggest political football, and its leader's punted.

Congress and the public cares a lot about the size of the fleet, and the threat of how it would shrink became one of the Navy's foremost arguments against massive across-the-board budget cuts two years ago. how many ships the Navy has, and for months the Navy's top officer warned the Hill that if across-the-board cuts remained in place that the fleet could shrink dramatically.

Those cuts are again looming — some observers believe inevitable — and yet the Navy's top officer didn't offer that argument, even when pressed at the first of what's likely to be many hearings about the impending budget shortfall. It was one of the main bargaining chips and was central to the Navy's argument opposing the so-called sequestration imposed by the Budget Control Act. Now that chip is off the table and it's not clear why.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon GreenertThe Navy's top officer, signaling a policy shift, told Congress Jan. 28Wednesday that major cuts to the fleet's ship numbers from sequestration as a result of across the board budget cuts are off the table.

In an exchange with freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, Adm. Jon Greenert said that his previous warnings that the service would shrink to about 255 ships, or lower, isn't happening, leaving some observers scratching their heads about raising questions about just how the service would absorb another 10 percent whack off its budget, to the tune of roughly $15 billion.

"That was a scenario based on our using force structure retirement to garner savings. And mandates from Congress … have kind of taken that off the table," Greenert testifiedsaid. "So I would look at other avenues, probably other modernization."

While acknowledging that plans to mortgage future capability to pay for readiness now is worrisome, "that's more likely where we would go for that kind of savings," he said.

Budget experts say the next round of cuts could look a lot like the last round of cuts: cancelled deployments, truncated training cycles, delayed or cancelled weapons and modernization upgrades, and delayed infrastructure and maintenance. All of which add up to setbacks and headaches for fleet sailors.

"One thing you can do is cut the training cycle," said Lawrencerry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics, and a current senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "You can cut flying hours; instead of 20 hours a month, now maybe you have 18 or 15 hours a month."

With Navy leaders signalling they'll protect shipbuilding and sailor pay and benefits, it's increasingly likely that budget cuts will have a deeper impact on ship and airplane operations, maintenance and base support.

Greenert's spokesman, Capt. Danny Hernandez, said later that the situation has changed since fleet leaders began using force structure as its argument against sequestration in 2013.

"We've learned since then that cuts to force structure just don't sit well with folks on the Hill or inside the [Pentagon]," he said. "And on top of that, we managed to recapture more than $10 billion above sequestration levels in 2014 and 2015."

Two sources with knowledge of the Navy's internal deliberations said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the secretary of the navy, opposed the force structure cuts as a means of achieving savings, arguing in part that it would take too long for shipbuilding to recover once the force emerged from budget caps.

The secretary said as much in his recent Surface Navy Association speech in mid-January.

"I don't believe you ought to pay for one Navy ship with another Navy ship. Shipbuilding takes a long time, it has long lead times," he said. "It takes a lot of time to get a ship from drawings to commissioning. It is the least reversible thing we do. If you miss a year, if you cancel a ship, you can't get it back."

A Navy official who spoke on background said that while the shipbuilding account would forge ahead, just where the Navy is looking to save money isn't apparent.

"The secretary has stated his commitment to preserving the shipbuilding account through sequester, but it's less clear where that money will come from," the official said.

The Navy will likely point to a revamped strategy that would keep the service within its means under the Budget Control Act — which this year caps total defense spending at just under $500 billion — BCA as the only viable way if it gets no relief from sequester, the official said.

CNO spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez said the service would look to ship modernization for some savings but wcould not specify which accounts the brassNavy are eyeing up for cuts when sequestration hits.

Greenert has consistently said he would not keep ships perpetually undermanned, and that hasn't changed, Hernandez said, adding that cutting sailors is not being discussed as an option to achieve savings.

Trouble on the Hill

Previous plans to achieve savings without losing ships have not fared well on Capitol Hill.

The cruiser phased-modernization plan, designed to keep the cruiser's air defense commander capability in the fleet beyond the service life of the hull, would have put 11 of the fleet's 22 cruisers in a kind of lay-up pierside. Then, as the Navy decommissioned one of the 11 in the active fleet, it would take a newly modernized cruiser out of lay-up and back in the fleet, holding the number of cruisers at 11 at all times until the Navy found a suitable replacement for its premier surface combatant platform.

But that plan tanked on the Hill and, instead of 11 cruisers in lay-up, only two were authorized.

A similar fate met plans to achieve saving by slowing the growth of personnel costs, including housing allowances, and raising Tricare fees, which earned the Navy some small concessions but not the broader reforms for which it was looking for.

Cuts to the fleet size seem to be the latest casualty in the political wrangling with Congress and inside the Pentagon, which leaves the Navy with limited options when budget cuts kick in, barring another budget agreement.

Sailors have already seen some funding setbacks, even That's a scenario that has already begun to play out in the force, even with the relief granted under a bipartisan budget agreement that lifted the spending caps imposed by BCA through the end of fiscal 2015.

Greenert pointed to risingincreased dissatisfaction among pilots as one lingering consequence of sequester cuts. Pilots on the front lines are being overworked, but others are largely bored and underused if they are not working up for a deployment, he said.

"If you're deployed, you're flying 60 hours a week sometimes," Greenert said in testimony. "If you're not deployed, you may be flying 10 hours a week. And some of that, by the way, may be in the simulator. So you are sitting around a classroom looking out the window at your strike fighter Hornet. It looks really great, but it's on the tarmac. And that's not why you joined."

No end in sight

The Navy is expected Monday to release a budget that is well aboveoutside the caps imposed by lawBCA, but experts and those in industry agree it's highly unlikely that the sequester is going awayanywhere.

The prospects of a deal to repeal the BCA are all but non-existent, said one lobbyist with ties to the ship-building industry.

"There is talk of rolling it back, but we've seen this movie now twice before and it doesn't end well," the lobbyist said.

Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, said even a new budget agreement that provides some relief from the caps has a dicey future on the Hill.

"When the issue was first brought up two years ago, it was brought up in the context of a bigger bargain on spending cuts," he said. "Sequestration was a bargaining chip in that bigger deal. Now, in order to lift the caps with a straight face, you have to find the cuts somewhere else.

"There just isn't much of a climate of negotiation between the president and Congress right now, and there is a lot of pressure in the grassroots to hold on to the spending caps. So I think it's going to be hard."

In the absence of a somewhat unlikely deal, sailors should hang on for more heavy rolls in the months and years ahead.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.

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