WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet strike fighters are the tip of the spear, embodying most of the fierce striking power of the aircraft carrier strike group. But nearly two-thirds of the fleet’s strike fighters can’t fly — grounded because they’re either undergoing maintenance or simply waiting for parts or their turn in line on the aviation depot backlog.
Overall, more than half the Navy’s aircraft are grounded, most because there isn’t enough money to fix them.
Additionally, there isn’t enough money to fix the fleet’s ships, and the backlog of ships needing work continues to grow. Overhauls — "availabilities" in Navy parlance — are being canceled or deferred, and when ships do come in they need longer to refit. Every carrier overall for at least three years has run long, and some submarines are out of service for prolonged periods, as much as four years or more. One submarine, the Boise, has lost its diving certification and can’t operate pending shipyard work.
Leaders claim that if more money doesn’t become available, five more submarines will be in the same state by the end of this year.
The Navy can’t get money to move around service members and their families to change assignments, and about $440 million is needed to pay sailors. And the service claims 15 percent of its shore facilities are in failed condition — awaiting repair, replacement or demolition.
The bleak picture presented by service leaders is in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s widely talked about plan to grow the Navy from today’s goal of 308 ships to 350 — now topped by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s new Force Structure Assessment that aims at a 355-ship fleet. Richardson’s staff is crafting further details on how the growth will be carried out — plans congressional leaders are eager to hear. It seems to many as though the Navy will be showered with money to attain such lofty goals.
Yet, for now, money is tight, due to several years of declining budgets mandated first by the Obama administration, then Congress, and to the chronic inability of lawmakers to provide uninterrupted funds to the military services and the government at large. Budgets have been cut despite no slackening in the demand for the fleet’s services; and the Navy, to preserve shipbuilding funds, made a conscious choice to slash maintenance and training budgets rather than eliminate ships, which take many years to build and can’t be produced promptly even when funding becomes available.
Congress has failed for the ninth straight year to produce a budget before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2017, reverting to continuing resolutions that keep money flowing at prior year levels. CRs have numerous caveats, however, and many new projects or plans can’t be funded since they didn’t exist in the prior year. There is widespread agreement that CR funding creates havoc throughout the Pentagon and the industrial base that supports it — often substantially driving costs higher to recover from lengthy delays. Yet, like the proverbial weather that everyone talks about but no one can change, there seems to be little urgency in Congress to return to a more businesslike budget profile.
The current continuing resolution through April 28 marks the longest stop-gap measure since fiscal 1977 — outstripping 2011 by only a couple weeks, noted Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a post on Twitter. This also marks the first CR situation during a presidential transition year.
And while the talk about building dozens of more ships grabs headlines, it is not at all clear when or even whether Congress will repeal the Budget Control Act — sequestration — which, if unabated, will continue its restrictions to 2021.
Meanwhile, some details are emerging of the new administration’s efforts to move along the budget process. In a Jan. 31 memorandum, Defense Secretary James Mattis described a three-phase plan that included submission by the Pentagon of a 2017 budget amendment request. The request would be sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget by March 1.
Under the plan, the full 2018 budget request is due to OMB no later than May 1.
The third phase of the plan involves a new National Defense Strategy and FY2019-2023 defense program, which "will include a new force sizing construct" to "inform our targets for force structure growth," Mattis said in the memo.
The services will make their case to Congress this week when the vice chiefs of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps testify in readiness hearings before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and the Senate Armed Services Committee the following day.
The vice chiefs are expected to make their pitches for money that can be spent right away, rather than funds for long-term projects that, with only five months left in the fiscal year even if Congress passes a 2017 budget, can’t be quickly put to use.
"If we get any money at all, the first thing we’re going to do is throw it into the places we can execute it," a senior Navy source said Feb. 2. "All of those places are in ship maintenance, aviation depot throughput — parts and spares — and permanent changes of station so we can move our families around and fill the holes that are being generated by the lack of PCS money."
The backlog is high. "There’s about $6-8 billion of stuff we can execute in April if we got the money," the senior Navy source said. "We can put it on contract, we can deliver on it right away."
Even if the budget top line is increased, Navy leaders say, the immediate need is for maintenance money, not new ship construction. A supplemental Navy list of unfunded requirements for 2017 that was sent to Congress in early January and is still being revised made it clear that maintenance needs are paramount.
"Our priorities are unambiguously focused on readiness — those things required to get planes in the air, ships and subs at sea, sailors trained and ready," a Navy official declared. "No new starts."
The dire situation of naval aviation is sobering. According to the Navy, 53 percent of all Navy aircraft can’t fly — about 1,700 combat aircraft, patrol, and transport planes and helicopters. Not all are due to budget problems — at any given time, about one-fourth to one-third of aircraft are out of service for regular maintenance. But the 53 percent figure represents about twice the historic norm.
The strike fighter situation is even more acute and more remarkable since the aircraft are vitally important to projecting the fleet’s combat power. Sixty-two percent of F/A-18s are out of service; 27 percent in major depot work; and 35 percent simply awaiting maintenance or parts, the Navy said.
With training and flying hour funds cut, the Navy’s aircrews are struggling to maintain even minimum flying requirements, the senior Navy source said. Retention is becoming a problem, too. In 2013, 17 percent of flying officers declined department head tours after being selected. The percentage grew to 29 percent in 2016.
Funding shortfalls mean many service members are unable to relocate to take on new assignments. So far in 2017, the Navy said, there have been 15,250 fewer moves compared with 2016.
Under the continuing resolution, the senior Navy official said, another 14 ship availabilities will be deferred in 2018 — one submarine, one cruiser, six destroyers, two landing ship docks, one amphibious transport dock and three minesweepers. Programs seeking to buy items that were not included in the 2016 budget can’t move forward, including CH-53K helicopters, Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles, Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles and littoral combat ship module weapons. Many more programs that were to increase 2017 buys over 2016 levels can’t do so.
And with only five months left in fiscal 2017, even if a budget is passed in late April, there is some talk about a yearlong continuing resolution — a prospect at which the senior Navy official shook his head.
"The full CR is not a good situation at all," he said.