A second round of sequestration cuts setcheduled for fiscal 2016 could unravel the Navy's plan to cap deployments at seven months, the fleet's top officer warned, as the service is on the path to cut deployments and boost training. If those cuts are averted, however, sailors can expect to see more time at home and better training leading into shorter deployments.
"We won't send anybody until they're ready," Adm. Bill Gortney said in a sit-down with reporters days before his scheduled change of command as the head of Fleet Forces Command. "So if their reliefs are not ready, those that are on station are ready and they are going to stay there as long as we can physically keep them there."
That is the forecast from Adm. BillWilliam Gortney, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, who discussed a number of issues days before his scheduled Nov. 24 change of command.
Sequestration will cut money from readiness accounts — ship availabilities, aircraft depot work and flying hours. If a ship can't be fixed on time, it can't enter its training evolutions on time.
That means the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower — the first carrier scheduled for a seven-month pump — would be first to feel the sting of sequestration.
Ike ended a year-long drydock overhaul in late August, but unforeseen maintenance problems a 30-percent growth in maintenance work (some of which is the direct result of previous sequestration cuts) will keep the flattop her in the yards into February 2015. Gortney in October switched Ike with the Harry S. Truman, which will deploy in the fall of 2015, nearly half a year ahead of schedule. That directly affects 780 sailors, who will see a quicker-than-normal turnaround. The Truman crew will be underway between nine and 10 months, Gortney said.
Ike will be ready to go by that time. The issue will be whether the ship that follows Ike will have the time and money it needs to stay on schedule. If not, Ike will be extended, and it won't be the first time. The ship did back-to-back deployments with only a two-month break for the holidays in 2012. between before entering its recent drydock overhaul.
Truman's ability for post-deployment surge is also at risk if readiness funds are cut. The expedited deployment means the ship's current avail will be about one-quarter of the 200,000 man-days originally planned, and she will have to catch up upon return. A ship that misses its availability will lose five to eight years off its life.
Gortney, who has been confirmed to lead U.S. Northern Command and is a leading candidate to be the next chief of naval operations, knows the impact of sequestration all too well. He led FFC through command through dire straits created by the first round in 2013 — including the canceling of five upcoming deployments and recalling home a deployed frigate. and said the command is still feeling the pain of those cuts.
Because the Navy has a cyclic readiness as ships work-up for deployment, force generation model, "We choose to hollow ourselves out when we go into the maintenance phase and then buy our way out in both money and time to get to the right readiness level," Gortney said in the Nov. 19 roundtable with reporters. "So the impacts of sequestration are just now showing up for us. … We got through it. It was painful, it wasn't fatal. The next time, if the law does not change, it will be painful. It won't be fatal."
The four-star, who has more traps than any pilot on active-duty, is no fan of long deployments. Nine months is an unsustainable model that "just isn't good for families," said Gortney, a second-generation naval officer and naval aviator who recalled "it wasn't much fun" watching his dad go on year-long deployments. With this in mind, Gortney led an overhaul of the Fleet Response Plan. Success would require he overcome two key obstacles: Manpower and maintenance.
"When I came in, the largest degrader was manpower," said Gortney, who took charge of FFC in late 2012. "We were overmanned ashore and undermanned at sea. We've gotten through that."
Gortney led an overhaul of the Fleet Response Plan, with the goal of having set the goal to have the right number of sailors with the right skill sets and right rank aboard the ships when they it completed the maintenance phase and started work-ups.
"Were almost there," he said. "We have really turned the tide, [and] I feel pretty good about where we are with the manpower piece."
Maintenance remains an issue. The Navy has diminishing funds to fix an aging fleet that is deploying more than designed. Ships need more time to catch up on maintenance and modernization, but op tempo has not decreased. As a result, long deployments are the norm. For example, the Bataan amphibious ready group on Oct. 31 completed its second extended deployment in 18 months, the first of which was a 322-day deployment — the longest in nearly 40 years. The carrier George H.W. Bush and its strike group returned Nov. 15 from a nine-month float. It was replaced by the Carl Vinson, which expects to be underway for 10 months.
FFCFleet Forces and Naval Sea Systems Command have developed changes to the maintenance phase, and Gortney is confident these changes will bring deployments averages down to seven months, beginning in fiscal 2016.
"I don't want to overpromise and underdeliver to our sailors and their families, but we think we can get there," he said.
The question is whether sequestration will drain those readiness funds.
"You can't do more with less," Gortney said. "But that doesn't mean we can't figure out how to be as efficient as we can with what we have. It is easy to say give me less mission, and I'll be more efficient. The missions are going to come, so we need to make sure we do everything in our power to properly prepare our sailors and Marines to do the nation's bidding."