The Navy is in bad shape and its leaders are starting to make noise about it.
The carrier George H.W. Bush is heading out for deployment Jan. 21 — about a month late — which meant an extended gap in carrier presence in the Middle East in the middle of a war on the Islamic State group. And the culprit was a longer-than-anticipated trip to the shipyards.
It's a sign of the times.
President Donald Trump has vowed to provide more money and an end to budget cuts that have wreaked havoc on the Navy's training and maintenance cycles — the period between deployments overseas. The constant demands on the force have caused an ever-growing list of equipment and weapons' systems that need to be fixed but lack funding and adequate time to perform the repairs.
"We are under stress right now," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson at a Defense One forum discussion Jan. 17. "There is persistent demand for naval forces from the [combatant commanders]. If you just take the raw numbers, we're meeting about half of those demands. So we're stretched pretty thin."
The strain on the fleet is made all the more real by the lack of funding for fixing its ships. The Navy's number two officer made the Navy's maintenance woes the centerpiece of his speech at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium in early January, and called the deferred maintenance problem in the Navy insidious.
"This long war we're in and emerging or re-emerging threats have raised the stakes and kept us on the field longer than our bullpen is able to stay healthy," Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of Naval operations said. "Deferred maintenance is insidiously taking its toll on the long-term readiness of our fleet."
During a presentation at the Surface Navy Association, Capt. Dave Bauer of the Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program said in 2016 he had 11 ships that had unfunded maintenance periods, which is when the Navy ties a ship up to the pier or sends it to the shipyards for extensive repair and renovation.
This new willingness to openly press the case for more maintenance dollars comes at a time when the incoming Trump administration has promised more money to the services and has set the Navy's ship-count goal at 355 ships up from today's 274.
But before any money goes into building new ships to boost its numbers, the Navy is demanding an end to its starvation diet for maintenance, Moran said.
"When the transition team asked me what I would do with more money today, this year and next my answer was not, more ships," Moran said. "It was making sure that the 274 ships we had were maintained and modernized to provide 274 ships worth of combat power … When we make decisions that either directly or indirectly underfund our readiness accounts, we do not get the full value from our Navy."
Within moments of Trump inauguration Friday, the administration had posted a commitment to reversing the strain on the Navy on the White House website.
"Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one third smaller than in 1991," the statement reads. "President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned."
Them old budget blues
One of the underlying themes of the SNA symposium was a barely-constrained giddiness at the prospect of a Trump-sponsored cash infusion into the military industrial complex. But experts and analysts say it may not be time to spike the football just yet — the challenges ahead for such a windfall are significant.
First off, the new White House budget director Mick Mulvaney is a South Carolina Tea Party Republican who during his time in Congress crusaded against both domestic and military spending. Second, the cash can’t flow until Congress repeals the Budget Control Act which locked in defense spending cuts for years to come.
That fight won’t be easy, experts say, especially with the aggressive domestic agenda Trump laid out in the campaign, said Dan Palazzolo, a professor of political science at University of Richmond, in a recent interview.
"There are going to have to be a lot of trade-offs," he said. "Donald Trump wants a lot of things: Big tax cuts, big infrastructure spending, doesn’t want to touch entitlements, defense spending. There are tensions here that are going to have to get unwound.
"Really, this is going to be the challenge of Trump’s presidency: How do you translate these broad policy proposals into policies, and defense is in that mix. It’s going to be on Congress to help him figure that out," Palazzolo said.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.