US Navy Adm. Jon Greenert (Alan Lessig/Staff)
On Feb. 24, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed the fiscal 2015 budget proposal to Congress ahead of its March 4 submission. For the Navy, the proposal recommended maintaining the carrier fleet at 11 ships, but it did not fund the refueling of the carrier George Washington. It also recommended capping the Littoral Combat Ship program at 32 hulls, 20 less than planned.
In the existing fleet, 11 of the Navy’s 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers would be sidelined until funds are available to modernize them. The proposal also said that if sequestration continues after 2016, another six ships would need to be laid up and the carrier variant of the F-35 joint strike fighter would be delayed by two years.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert spoke to Defense News reporters and editors the day after the budget preview.
Q. The fiscal 2015 budget preview puts as many as 14 ships in lay up. How will this work, and how much money could you save doing it?
A. At any given time, you would have 12 ships in lay up. Because when you talk about the three LSDs [dock landing ships], which would give you 14 [11 cruisers plus three LSDs], two of those would always be operational as the process works. So there are 22 cruisers today. And as you know, by congressional direction we are employing them all. And we will continue to do that. Our plan, our proposal, would meet the ‘14 budget requirements to do that. Simply put, you would take the most modern and effective and keep them operational. Because we need 11 air defense combatants. We will take the most modern, and I do not mean newest, I mean, most modernized, take the remaining 11 and put them in a preparation to be modernized.
There is a category, it is a mobilization category. And then when the industrial base and when the ship is lined up and we have the money to [modernize it], put it back into the fleet.
When you look at LSDs, it is a similar process. We will not propose to start that in . [In 2016], you would take one of the LSDs out in a similar sequence so you have two of those three always operational. We modernized that LSD. We would want to take the one needing the midlife upgrade in first, get it upgraded and then follow on with the others.
Q. With the current reductions that you are seeing, can you give us an outlook on how that might affect exercises, workups, flying hours, steaming days, things of that nature?
A. There is a backlog from the  issues that we have talked about before. We have got to follow very closely on, particularly in the aircraft maintenance, to get that backlog down. We have got to capture a few availabilities that did not get all the way done, make sure we pick them up when they come back around.
You have to have the right capacity in the shipyard. We have that in the budget to make sure we have the right man-years for our public shipyards, and make sure we are in sync with our private shipyards.
Q. The Navy proposed eliminating an aircraft carrier in the budget, which did not happen. What were you protecting? What were you gaining back if you were able to eliminate one strike group, and how does that fit into your requirements needs?
A. Well, number one, you have got to figure out how to balance the budget with the resources you have. What is the situation on the sea-based strategic deterrent? Now, how do I get the most presence worldwide with the most capability in day to day, so that we are influencing where we need to respond very quickly, be where it matters, when it matters, all of that. And then, what if there are contingencies — where are we and how do we respond?
Carriers are very expensive to maintain. You get certain periods when you are either building one or overhauling one. You put large sums of money in or you do not. So to balance the budget, you look for when are those periods, what is your shipbuilding plan where you put large sums of money in, so you understand that. And how would using that as an offset or not using that as an offset, what would that impact the rest of the Navy when you look at what else is available to provide that offset?
That was the balance that I used to come forward, and I felt that at those times, with those monies, with that top line, that was an appropriate proposal.
Q. Can you tie that to anything specific? Can you say that if we do not have to support a strike group that means I can continue to support the level of something else that I want to support?
A. As I was walking through my priorities, I would have [to ensure] a viable industrial base. In other words, I want to have competition at every ship type possible. And you cannot have big gaps in your industrial base. You have got to keep the asymmetrical capabilities. And then you lay out the presence. You say with this lesser number of carrier strike groups, here is the presence I can deliver. Here is the risk associated for contingencies. We did not have time to run through all the plans and do war games [on] every single one. Those models take several, several months to run and get out. So we laid out the timing, how much time would it take to get there with 10 versus 11, with nine versus 10. These are the things we go through.
But we felt that we could provide reasonable presence, if you will, adequate presence, for what we understood when compared with the other consequences of having a carrier, not having a carrier.
Q. For the Littoral Combat Ship program, what are you doing to keep that program going in the face of what is happening in Washington?
A. Well, we have, I think, a fairly deliberate path. This tenor and all this kind of business and opinions and all this kind of stuff that you laid out, I have seen this before and so have you. And then we talk about it. We bring more people down upon it. We bring people out to Singapore, etc., and the tone and the tenor tends to change.
We have 32 ships and they have got to be delivered right and they have got to do the best they can. And so, that is where I am headed. When you look at the details and you look at the memo the secretary presented, it says hey, show me what the results are. We have got a lot of things going on.
Now the Congress has asked for some reports. There are some reports coming out. I want to see all this. And I do not mind that at all. Good, let us bring all these together in a coherent, clear, written in English report that says this is what the ship does. And if in the end we do not like, for example, the survivability design that was put in it originally, through the [Joint Requirements Oversight Council] process, fully approved by all the requirements and we have already agreed to build 32 just like this, we can change course on that.
But we ought to understand that this has been through the proper process. It needs a missile, we all know that. So we are moving on.
And the other piece is the lethality. I know and I have talked to you about the need to get lethality for this, no problem. So let us see what we can do. Is it a next flight? Well, Mr. Secretary, here is what we can do with the next flight or the one we have today. And this is what a totally new design might look like. So we will make an informed decision to move ahead.
In the end, I need small surface combatants. The Navy needs small surface combatants. Twenty years ago ... we had 350 ships, about 40 of them were small surface combatants. We have about 20 today. Twenty years ago, I had about the same number, requisite number of subs, large surface combatants, carriers, and not literal numbers, but I say requisite for what we needed, and support ships. But at a 350-ship Navy. But we are short on small surface combatants. There is no question.
Q. If the F-35C is delayed by two years, what are the ramifications?
A. It will not affect IOC [initial operating capability]. In other words, for me IOC is right. I have got the software package onboard. It works, which means it can employ all the weapons that I employ on [an F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet and it can land on a carrier, it can fit on a carrier, it can go down the elevator, come into the hangar bay, and you can do maintenance on it. It can be as good as a Super Hornet.
Q. Are you happy with the tire issue now?
A. I am happy with the progress. We have got a test still coming up, but they tell me, I listen to them, and what they tell me I am OK with.
Q. A year ago, it was one of your top concerns.
A. Yes it was because in my head, when I see [hull, mechanical, electrical] stuff, I say we can fix this. We kind of always have. When I see zeroes and ones are lining up, I am not so sure. So yes, I know what you mean. But so far yes, I think it will be OK based on what I see. But it is a matter of capacity and then how quickly do we now move those squadrons into the air wings. But IOC for us is you are ready to deploy with — we say a squadron, but the exact numbers are not fully defined. I have got to have the 3F software. Once you have got that, you can ramp it up pretty fast. If I have the software and the airplane, some number can embed in an air wing and go to sea, I can ramp up from there.
Q. Anytime anyone talks about a delay in F-35, it begs the question of whether the Hornet line cranks up again to fill any kind of gap that might be created by delay.
A. No, we have run those numbers through that sort of impact on the strike fire inventory. We can manage. ■
By Defense News staff in Washington.