Global Demand On the Rise For Already Struggling U.S. Naval Forces

By Dan Parsons

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — U.S. naval forces may soon be in the highest demand in history just as budget constraints are stretching the Navy and Marine Corps to their breaking points, the commander of U.S. Navy Fleet Forces said Oct. 29.

The Navy’s already shaky ability to maintain forward-deployed forces and support the Marine Corps’ expeditionary warfare capabilities worldwide could become more unstable if Congress continues with the de facto policy of reducing defense budgets through sequestration, Adm. William E. Gortney said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference here.  

The U.S. military’s mission in Iraq has ended and its role in Afghanistan is winding down, but the ongoing unrest in the Middle East that began with the Arab Spring has underscored the need for rapidly deployable forces for the foreseeable future. Add to that a spreading threat from al Qaida in North Africa and a U.S. national security policy shift to the Asia-Pacific region and the Navy and Marine Corps have a lot on their plate, he said.

“What does that mean for naval forces? It means we’re going to be busy over the next 10 years. When there’s a crisis, we sail to crisis,” he said. “The demand for naval forces is going to be as high — if not higher — than ever over the next 10 years.”

Across the Elizabeth River, the USS Iwo Jima sits in dry dock for maintenance. Tied up next to that ship is the USS Wasp, out of operational rotation since 2005 to conduct F-35 Joint Strike Fighter testing.

Gortney pointed to the big-deck amphibious assault ships and said the Navy is already struggling to keep them and their larger aircraft carrier cousins deployed.

A lack of available manpower to perform maintenance and operational tempos that require ships and crews to ship out on repeated deployments without downtime has created a backlog of routine modernization and upgrade needs, he said. Training plans already are inadequate and in-port work on several classes of ships are not being executed properly, Gortney said. Still, combatant commanders clamor for more forces.

The Navy and Marine Corps’ missions are threatened by the inability to plan for the depth and breadth of future budget cuts, Gortney said. He expects to contend with a $1 trillion reduction in funding through the current post-war downturn in spending.

“My biggest concern as we move forward is I think [Congress is] going to come after us and reduce the DoD budget through multiple rounds of sequestration,” Gortney said. “As a result of that, the way the law is written, it comes out of my ops and maintenance. We only have two areas that we have a lot of money in … and that is in availabilities and flying hours.”

Canceled ship availabilities translate directly to a reduction in a ship’s service life, he said. The ship also misses the opportunity for technology and weapons upgrades that have already been delayed by deployments to fulfill combatant commander demands for force projection, he said. Choosing to delay maintenance also ratchets up the cost of the same fixes.

Cutting flying hours and other training opportunities eats into the institutional knowledge and experience that is needed to ramp back up and train a capable force in times of future conflict, Gortney said. The Navy also has few sailors to shed. 

“The Navy has lost 50,000 sailors over the last 10 years, so there’s no money there. As a matter of fact, we overshot our margin and we’re trying to grow a little,” he said.

New technologies could take some of the budget burden off of efforts to preserve readiness, he said. Tension exists between fleet commanders who want to preserve operational capabilities and force structure and those inside the Beltway that are “enamored” with shiny new technologies and platforms that cost billions of dollars, Gortney said.

“That tension is healthy,” he admitted.

There must be a balancing act in that debate as well, he added. New vessels like the LPD-17 class amphibious assault ships and aircraft like the F-35 are much needed. Existing platforms are old and have been driven hard to keep up with two wars and the myriad other contingencies both the Navy and Marine Corps have responded to since 2001.

The very Navy ships that project U.S. military power across the globe have been poorly maintained over the past decade, he said.

“We have got to get our ships in on time and out on time,” Gortney said. “We didn’t take very good care of our ships for too many years. Two years ago we were treading water and we needed a snorkel. Last year, we had our head above water.”

As he went through the rhetoric so familiar of late from high-ranking military officers about the perils of sequestration and warnings against creating a “hollow” force, Gortney was more optimistic sounding than many.

“We’re not the first people to be here, we won’t be the last people to be here,”  he said of the historic trend of declining post-conflict defense budgets. “Our budget is a … wave. The last time we were at the bottom of that wave was 9/11. What happens every time that wave goes up? It’s not good for our nation. It means our nation is at war. We need to stop looking down and start looking sideways.”

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare

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