The Drift

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Navigation Brief

Authors Note: This piece was originally published May 21 as an e-newsletter.

ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters

Like every sailor who ever was, I get nostalgic about my time at sea. Being underway is like being a visitor to another planet: You don’t belong out there. It’s the not place for homo sapiens. But it’s full of wonders, to be sure. Waterspouts, a trillion visible stars, immense waves, flying fish, wales, dolphins, turtles, sea snakes: it’s a bizarre world within our world that does its best to try and kill you when it can. But it sure is pretty and you learn to love it.

The thing I loved most, though, is seeing storms brewing way out on the horizon – especially at night when you can see the lightning light up the pitch-black oceanscape in flickers for a split second. And while it can herald some unpleasant ship handling in the near future, it’s an awesome sight.

I had a chance to talk with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday today, along with four other reporters, on a conference call and he’s got a message for you: There’s a storm on the horizon.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there’s trouble in River City and it’s our old friend maintenance rearing its ugly head.

That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight.

Let’s Drift.


Back to the Future

I wrote these two paragraphs in 2015, just five years ago, and it was in a story I broke that the Navy was planning to pull its aircraft carriers out of Central Command later in they year to try and get the fleet back on a sustainable pace of operations. Deployments had ballooned to in excess of 10 months, and the Navy was desperately trying to get it back under control.

Excerpt:“Since 2011, the Navy has seen ever-longer deployments, some more than 10 months. The Navy partially blames the onerous deployments on having to provide two carriers at all times in the Persian Gulf between 2011 and 2013. The requirement forced the service to extend deployments while critical maintenance was performed on stateside carriers and escort ships.

“The second big hit to deployment lengths was work stoppages in the public shipyards, the result of furloughs after the first round of across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, in 2013. That set already strained maintenance schedules even further behind.”

Jim Mattis did a number of the Navy with his two-carrier requirement, and I’ve often wondered if his laser-focus on readiness as Defense Secretary was a kind of penance for his voracious consumption of it as Central Command. But COVID-19 is creating a similar dynamic and when you recall that “Winter is Coming,” the era of long deployments and maintenance shortfalls could be returning to the fleet.

Here’s what CNO had to say about how COVID-19 is affecting the shipyards. I spliced this quote together from two parts of the conversation, but they fit together.

The Quote“We are looking into FY21 and 22 in terms of force generation: All the things that have to be in place in terms of manning, training and equipping the fleet to meet the Secretary of Defense’s requirements out through 21 and into 22.

“In the case of FY21 specifically, those requirements are not uninformed by COVID math. And those requirements may need to be modified based on our ability to get ships out of the shipyard on time.

“Right now we are looking at 14 CNO availabilities that are ongoing. And for each one of those there are challenges because there are specific skillsets in each of those yards that is not up to 100 percent manned right now.

We’re looking at very complicated flow charts for what needs to get done on the ship to get it done on time, and a lot of times that work is sequential – one job depends on the other. We are adjusting that in stride. We are descoping some availabilities slightly, deferring some work that’s not critical, but we do need to continue maintaining and modernizing.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far this year with COVID, we are beginning to take a look at how that bow wave of potential delays might impact in 21, and then how do we prioritize nuclear-powered ships, strike groups, ARGs, SSNs, SSBNs – we want to make sure we get the prioritization right so that we can optimize those ships and their path through the shipyards, through the maintenance cycle and back out.”

Look, CNO’s language is very careful and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he’s making it very clear that there could be risks to the Navy’s maintenance schedule in the year ahead. And maintenance is the key to everything when it comes to the rotational presence model that rules everything in the Navy.

There are already signs that the Navy’s deployment systems is showing cracks. And Drift Subscribers and those who can read tea leaves know budget cuts are in the air soon. The kind of one-two punch that created the Navy’s readiness crisis in the second half of the last decade? Well the Navy is going to take another brutal combo with COVID-19 and likely budget cuts coming down the pike. The Navy's system is resilient to an extent, but major perturbations like a significant increase in demand a significant logjam in in the shipyards will create significant issues.

As our friend Todd Harrison intimated a few weeks ago: it is time to start making a plan.

Now on to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

We’ll go straight to links tonight.

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