WASHINGTON – Good Evening, Drifters
Well now, that was some trip to Capitol Hill for the Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
There were two Navy hearings this week: One with Esper and Milley and one with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly. And while the Navy wasn’t the really the purpose of the Esper/Milley hearing – it was really for the DoD posture across the board – no doubt the Navy ruled the day. For what it’s worth, the word “Navy” appears 41 times, more than any other service, in the transcript.
I think its safe to say that several lawmakers were displeased with the cuts to Navy shipbuilding and their ire was directed at Esper and Milley, but mostly Esper. The tone of the hearing on Wednesday was accusatory and combative when it came to Navy issues. That stood in contrast with today’s Navy posture, which was largely polite and (to be quite honest) a little boring.
I think it’s something we should unpack, so let’s get right to it.
Esper Takes a Beating
Let’s get the ugly parts out of the way up front. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, came loaded for bear, fuming about the 19 percent cut the shipbuilding in the FY2021 budget, including cutting a Virginia-class submarine out of the budget. Here’s a sample:
The Quote: “I have been on the Sea Power Committee for 14 years. You have to go back to the height of the surge when the Navy shipbuilding was a bill payer because we had 200,000 troops in a land war over in the Middle East to see such an anemic shipbuilding request from the administration here today.”
“And I would just say this is a punch in the gut to shipyard workers, the metal trades who are making life commitments to learn how to be welders and electricians and carpenters to see this radical ruder turn in this year's budget in terms of shipbuilding. It is also a punch in the gut to the supply chain, who, again, we have been coaxing back into shipbuilding, again, after the lean years during the Iraq and Afghanistan war to make investments in terms of capital and hiring.”
For background on what Courtney was talking about, check out this story I wrote from last August:
Questions about US Navy attack sub program linger as contract negotiations drag
Courtney then went on to press Esper on the 30-year shipbuilding plan and why it wasn’t submitted with the budget, contrary to US law.
Esper’s response is worth quoting in full because it comes up again later. Two things to note. One: Holy cow, does he ever throw the Navy under the bus, lol. Second, Esper clearly reads Defense News.
See: In a quest for 355 ships, US Navy leaders are unwilling to accept a hollow force
Now, here’s what Esper had to say.
The Quote: I haven't seen a 30-year shipbuilding plan. I'm awaiting its presentation to me. It's my report. Once I've had a chance to review it and digest it and follow up on it, at the appropriate point in time I will share with you what I believe our future force structure should look like.
**[That sound you hear is the Navy getting run over]**
Cont.: With regard to the first point you made, I will say this much. I think it's a very important issue. I'm a big believer in attack submarines. My gut tells me we need more than what we've planned for, number one.
But there are two competing pressures we have right now. A top line budget, which actually gives us 2 percent less buying power. But, the second thing, and importantly, is I support what the Navy did in terms of moving nearly $4 billion from shipbuilding to maintenance.
The concern that the CNO has, that the acting secretary has, and I have, is that we have a hallow Navy. Why do I know that? A GAO report dated December of last year said this much, over the last five years 75 percent of our surface ships never left maintenance on time. That's 75 percent; half of those ships took over three months to get to sea.
So, the hearing moved on, but then another hit was on the way, this time from Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, who was displeased with Esper’s answer.
The Quote:In your response to Mr. Courtney, you were out of line, sir. That law is quite clear. When you submit your budget, you are to submit the shipbuilding plan. And to for you to say you're going to give it to us on your own good time and when you're ready, you are not in line with the law. I'll let it go with that. You should listen very carefully. You are heading for a major brawl with this committee.
The explanation Esper later gave – somewhat different from the answer he gave earlier that threw the Navy under the bus – was that there were several ongoing assessments, including the Integrated Navy Force Structure Assessment, that would inform the shipbuilding plan, and that he wants to present a coherent picture to Congress.
Lest you think Eper’s naval skewering was just a Democrat thing, Esper took another shot from Rep. Rob Wittman. R-Virginia, over shipbuilding, who mused aloud about whether cutting ships, including early retirements, was the direction Esper wanted to go given China’s investment in ships.
Esper clearly doesn’t believe, as of today, in shifting the Defense budget to accommodate shipbuilding. He’s made the clear to Defense News, he’s made that clear to Congress – he’s just made it clear. He thinks the Navy needs to find the money internally and additionally offered a suggestion for something Congress could do to help out.
The Quote: I want to help the Navy as much as possible. Acting Secretary Modly made a, I think, a good call to dig deep within his own budget. I mean, you know, about 10 percent 11 percent of the Navy, the entire Navy budget is only dedicated to shipbuilding. And I think he's gonna dig deep to try and find additional funding to do what he needs to do.
And then what we'd like to do is have a legislative provision come forward where DoD would seek authority to transfer any expired Navy funds, which otherwise would go to the Treasury, and have them fall back into [shipbuilding]. We think that could generate at least a billion dollars a year or so that we could plunge back into shipbuilding. That's something that other departments of the federal government already have available to them.
There is one other thing from today’s hearing that is on topic where Gilday and Modly both tackle this question. Modly admitted that even what he could find internally may not be enough, and repeated a call for the Navy to get more of the DoD budget. The internal review seeking $40 billion in savings over the FYDP itself, Modly suggested, was part of the conversation in raising the Navy’s topline.
The Quote: We have to look internally at our own organization and there are many things that we do – the way we operate, the way our business processes are set up, the business system structures that we have – that inhibit our organization to be as agile as it needs to be. And there's cost associated with that. There are overhead structures that are associated with that we don't need and we need to funnel that into modernization.
I think, ultimately, we can dig very deep to find some of that, but at some point there is going to have to be a broader discussionabout the higher topline for the Navy. And that's something that I'm trying to queue up.
So that’s all very interesting.
Now, on to The Hotwash.
Bonus U/W Days: While it’s unclear how many ships are affected by this, some number of ships recently in ports with elevated Coronavirus risk are getting some quality underway time, reports CNN.
Exceprt: The US Navy has ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to effectively self-quarantine and remain at sea for 14 days in order to monitor sailors for any symptoms of coronavirus.
"Out of an abundance of caution, Pacific Fleet is implementing additional mitigations to prevent Sailors from contracting COVID-19, and to monitor Sailors who have traveled to higher-risk areas," US Navy spokesman Lt. James Adam told CNN, using the official name for the virus.
The spokesman said that "at this time, there are no indications that any US Navy personnel have contracted Coronavirus Disease 2019," but added later that the Navy was acting out of an abundance of caution.
Read more here: US Navy orders self-quarantine for ships that have made stops in the Pacific amid coronavirus concerns
Trouble in Asia: Pacific Fleet accused a Chinese destroyer of lasing a P-8A about 400 miles west of Guam, though Chinese state media denies it, FWIW.
Excerpt: A Chinese warship targeted a U.S. naval patrol aircraft with a laser in international airspace earlier this month, Pacific Fleet announced Thursday.
Navy officials in Hawaii blasted the Chinese actions as “unsafe and unprofessional."
The Navy P-8A Poseidon was conducting routine operations on Feb. 17 about 380 miles west of Guam in the Philippine Sea when the incident occurred, Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lt. j.g. Rachel McMarr told Navy Times.
The laser was not visible to the naked eye but was detected in flight by sensors on board the aircraft, McMarr said.
Read more here: Pacific Fleet: Chinese destroyer’s laser targeted US plane
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