U.S. Navy Presence At Risk Under Sequester

By Rear Adm. John Kirby
Chief of Information

Lots of people are still talking about our ships in the eastern Mediterranean. And well they should.

The President made it clear the other night that he still favors a strike, even as he pursues a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria.

So, those destroyers are still out there. And they are still ready. As Secretary Mabus said just this week, “I guarantee you that if we are called upon to strike, we will strike hard and we will strike fast. Presence is what we do. It is who we are.”

The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) is underway in the Mediterranean Sea, June 16, 2013. Barry is on a scheduled deployment supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the 6th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James Turner/Released)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) is underway in the Mediterranean Sea, June 16, 2013. Barry is on a scheduled deployment supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the 6th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James Turner/Released)

 

But for all the attention we’ve received, two things keep getting lost in the clutter. First, those ships didn’t surge to the Med. They were already there. We’ve been rotating two or three ballistic missile shooters through that region for several years now.

And second, the forward presence they represent is no given. Well, maybe in the immediate future it is. But it’s sure not going to be a given if sequestration remains the law of the land.

Now, some folks might say we’re exaggerating about that – that we’re using the Syria situation as a way to plug a better budget.

Well, consider this. If sequestration hits us square in the face again next year – and I see nothing in the cards that says it won’t – we’ll be able to keep one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group deployed to both the Pacific and the Central Command regions. And we’ll be able to keep another of each ready to go if needed. But not a whole heckuva lot more than that.

And those destroyers? Yea, we’ll still keep them over there in the eastern Med. It’s an important mission. But the only way we will maintain that presence is by basing destroyers in Spain, which we will do starting next year.

In fact, if sequestration continues into the next fiscal year, a lot of things are going to get real hard.

Another round of sequestration will cut the Navy’s budget by 10 percent below our FY14 budget submission. Worse, it will again apply the arbitrary, across-the-board cuts to our accounts. And since the President exempted military manpower from the cuts, sequestration essentially whacks a whopping 14 percent from every other account.

But this time, we won’t have prior-year funds to ease the sting. We won’t have that flexibility because resources from previous years’ budgets have already been spent. There’s no piggy bank to crack open.

Aviation boatswain's mates run to prepare an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter for takeoff from the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 4, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenan O'Connor/Released)

Aviation boatswain’s mates run to prepare an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter for takeoff from the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 4, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenan O’Connor/Released)

Well, what about reprogramming authority? Wouldn’t that help? Sure it would. We’d love to be able to move some money around. But even with reprogramming authority under an FY14 Appropriations Bill – which, by the way, we don’t have yet – sequestration would cut our operations and maintenance account by $4.6 billion instead of $5.6 billion. That’s the account we use to keep those ships out there and those Sailors fully trained.

A cut of this size to that account – without reprogramming authority – will delay more than half our ship maintenance availabilities next year and reduce our training to “just in time,” meaning our Sailors won’t be ready until just before they leave.

In fact, we’ll have to shut down two airwings for three months each and limit four others to only the minimum level of flying, the “tactical hard deck.”

Not only will we have fewer ships, subs and aircraft ready to go if needed, we’ll also lose $4.5 billion next fiscal year from the accounts we use to buy new ones.

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets from the Dambusters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195 take off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in the Philippine Sea, Aug. 15, 2013. George Washington and its embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman/Released)

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets from the Dambusters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195 take off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in the Philippine Sea, Aug. 15, 2013. George Washington and its embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman/Released)

Sequestration could cost us a littoral combat ship, an afloat forward staging base/mobile landing platform, and up to 25 aircraft (Prowler, JSF, Osprey and others) needed for our future fleet. It will also delay a Virginia-class submarine.

And if we start the fiscal year with a continuing resolution, we will also delay the refueling of USS George Washington and won’t be authorized to finish building the Gerald R. Ford.

We’ll be forced to award contracts later than planned. And we’ll no doubt miss out on multi-year procurement savings. That means the ships and planes we do buy are going to cost us more and come off the production lines and shipyards a little slower. And that means a smaller fleet.

A few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Hagel explained the Strategic Choices Management Review (SCMR), and the actions that could partially offset some of the damage sequestration in FY14 promises.

“The bold management reforms, compensation changes, and force structure reductions identified by the Strategic Choices and Management Review,” he said, “can help reduce the damage that would be caused by the persistence of sequestration in fiscal year 2014. But they won’t come close to avoiding it altogether. If these abrupt cuts remain, we risk fielding a force that over the next few years is unprepared due to a lack of training, maintenance, and the latest equipment.”

So, SCMR options – including an eight or nine carrier fleet – is not out of the realm of the possible.

Of course, this isn’t just about the carriers. If the numbers of strike groups shrink, so would the number of surface combatants, amphibious ships and air wings.

Indeed, if sequestration continues through this decade, the Navy will have something like 38 fewer ships to meet Combatant Commanders’ needs – needs which are unlikely to decrease.

And it won’t just be the Combatant Commanders who suffer. Just this month, we let contracts in Grand Rapids, MI; Cedar Rapids, IA; Columbia City, IN; Rolling Meadows, IL, and North Charleston, SC, and a host of other cities and small towns across America.

A smaller fleet means fewer jobs and lost revenue for small businesses and an unstable industrial base.

Just look around. The Navy is in demand. Heavy demand. From the Asia-Pacific to the eastern Mediterranean, we really are, as the CNO likes to say, “where it matters, when it matters.”

But with the prospect of another sequestered year ahead, I wonder just how long we’ll be able to keep that up.