Report: Overworked Navy at a tipping point

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Sailors from Deck department hold the phone and distance line on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while alongside the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry for a replenishment at sea on Nov. 9, 2015.   Anthony N. Hilkowski/U.S. Navy
Sailors from Deck department hold the phone and distance line on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while alongside the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry for a replenishment at sea on Nov. 9, 2015. Anthony N. Hilkowski/U.S. Navy

Report: Overworked Navy at a tipping point

by: Hugh Lessig | .
Daily Press (Newport News, Va. | .
published: November 30, 2015

The Navy faces a crisis on the near horizon with too few ships, tired sailors and emerging global threats, leaving the Pentagon with no easy choices, a new study concludes.

The main problem facing the Navy and Marine Corps is "that demand for naval forces exceeds the supply they can sustainably deliver," according to the report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) released Nov. 18.

Titled "Deploying Beyond Their Means: America's Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point," the report lays out options for the Defense Department that involve either a fundamental policy shift or spending more money. Each choice has an implication for Hampton Roads, the home to the world's largest naval base in Norfolk and the headquarters of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the nation's largest military shipbuilder.

The report cites several options for the Navy:

  • Pull back. The Navy could reduce its presence around the globe, but that would come amid rising tensions in Syria, Ukraine and China.
  • Build more ships. The study says it would require another $4 billion to $7 billion per year to build a fleet that could sustain the Navy's current global presence while still meeting guidelines for training and maintenance. In real dollars, the Navy's shipbuilding account has been around $16 billion for years.
  • Move another aircraft carrier to Japan to address the Asia-Pacific region. Or Congress could set aside more money to maintain the current operating tempo, pumping more money into sailors' paychecks and maintenance budgets.

The Defense Department "will eventually need to reconcile the mismatch between the supply of naval forces and the demands placed on them," the report states.

Authored by Bryan Clark, a CSBA senior fellow, and research assistant Jesse Sloman, the report comes as the U.S. is without an aircraft carrier in the Middle East, the first such gap in nearly a decade. It occurred when the USS Theodore Roosevelt left the region in October. The USS Harry S. Truman, which deployed from Norfolk last week, will fill the void.

The report frames the crisis as a result of trying to do more with fewer resources.

The Navy had 333 ships in 1998, and now it's down to about 271. But the workload has remained constant during that time.

"As a result, each ship is working harder to maintain the same level of presence," the report states.

In 1998, 62 percent of Navy ships were deployed instead of training near home. That rose to a high of 86 percent in 2009, dropping to about 74 percent this year.

Increased operating tempo has caused problems. In 2010, the amphibious assault ship Bataan rushed to aid victims of the Haiti earthquake one month removed from a seven-month deployment. While in Haiti, it suffered an equipment failure that forced a delay in operations.

In 2011 and 2012, the Essex experienced mechanical problems due to skipping maintenance, causing the ship to miss one Pacific exercise and scale back participation in another.

More recently, the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower endured back-to-back deployments in 2012 and 2013, resulting in a maintenance period that was 65 percent longer than planned.

Crews have also felt the strain.

The report cited a 2014 survey by two Navy officers that found 49.8 percent of enlisted personnel and 65.5 percent of officers felt that operational tempo was too high.

To address these concerns, the Navy has instituted a new deployment cycle called the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. It's designed to make the rotation of deployments and homecomings more predictable, and reduce at-sea periods to a maximum eight months.

This plan, once fully implemented, "will better enable some naval forces to complete training and maintenance between deployments," the report states. "However, it will also reduce the presence they can deliver overseas ..."

The study was sponsored in part by the U.S. Navy League's "America's Strength" campaign, which lobbies for more naval resources.

In a separate article released Nov. 18, the same day as the report, Clark said the fleet will begin to break down if the Pentagon doesn't act.

"Over the last decade," he wrote, "the Navy and Marine Corps met the demand by simply doing more with less."

Among those reacting to the report last week was retired Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, who said, "We cannot allow the erosion of the Navy-Marine Corps team to continue."

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