Anxiety About Sequester Topic No.1 on Navy Social Media
By Sandra I. Erwin
In the face of draconian budget cuts, talk therapy is how the Navy is helping its 318,000 sailors deal with the anxiety.
Angst over sequestration and what lies ahead is reaching fever pitch in Washington and across the fleet. In times like these, the more talk the better, said the Navy's top spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
"When you have this level of anxiety and uncertainty, what I've learned in 22 years as a public affairs officer is that you have to talk more, not less,” Kirby said Feb. 28 at a Navy League gathering in Arlington, Va.
President Obama exempted military personnel from sequestration, and sailors are not going to miss any paychecks. But they do worry about what the budget cuts at large mean for the future of the Navy, Kirby said.
“This issue right now is the most dominant on social media, and is driving conversation,” said Kirby. Navy leaders are seeking to calm nerves by engaging sailors directly on Facebook Twitter and talk radio, he said. “You have to be out there more,” to explain the facts and “provide context.”
Social media mostly have served the military as vehicles for “getting the message out,” he said, But for the medium to be effective, it has to be interactive. “You have to invest time in having conversations with folks,” he said.
Kirby has been in a tough spot this week pushing back criticism — notably by Washington Post conservative columnist George Will — that the Navy’s decision last month to cancel an aircraft carrier deployment was unnecessary theatrics. Keeping a carrier in port was a tough call, and was not “political” or done for dramatic effect, Kirby insisted.
The repercussions of not deploying the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Truman have been significant, he said. Thousands of sailors who should have been at sea are home waiting for the budget standoff to be resolved. Fleet morale is a huge concern for Navy leaders, Kirby said. “Sailors join the Navy to go to sea, learn skills, and perform those skills at sea,” he said. If sailors perceive a future of fewer deployments, there could be long-term effects on retention.
Another high-profile decision was the postponement of a billion-dollar refueling and overhaul of the USS Lincoln. Kirby said the problem is the Defense Department not having a full-year appropriation for fiscal year 2013. Operating under a temporary spending measure prevents the military from starting any new programs. Nevertheless, the Navy is hopeful that the work on the Lincoln can begin sooner, rather than later, said Kirby. A $40 million contract was announced this week to keep shipyard workers doing prep work, he said. “We still want to do this overhaul.”
Another casualty of sequestration will be the Navy’s advertising and recruiting efforts, said Kirby. Cutbacks can be managed in the near term, he said. “Over time, though, the inability to talk to Americans about what their Navy is and does hurts long-term readiness.”
Admirals have been known to worry excessively about the Navy's public image, said Kirby. “You see a lot of hand wringing in the Pentagon about people not knowing why we have a Navy.” But he said those fears are unfounded. “Even with the budget uncertainty, [according to Gallup polls] Americans still want a larger and more capable Navy.”
One of the key messages the Navy is pushing in sequestration talks is “reversibility,” Kirby said. That is the idea that programs that might be on the chopping block now could be revived later, when there is more clarity about future budgets. Ship maintenance work, for instance, might have to be canceled, but not all at once. “People are going to have to work this month to month.”
Kirby said the Navy is still holding out for budget relief, even if a March 1 sequestration — which will remove $46 billion from the Pentagon’s budget between now and October — is all but certain.
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