WASHINGTON — US Navy leaders have made no secret the fleet's maintenance accounts are underfunded. The situation – exacerbated by several years of sequestration-mandated budget cuts, a government shutdown, Congress' chronic ability to pass a budget before the end of each fiscal year, a high operating tempo and the cumulative effects of all those problems – is affecting the readiness of ships, aircraft and sailors.
The Navy has an $848 million shortfall in its current operations and maintenance accounts, a service official said, and while there will be no impact to forces already deployed, continuing problems "would likely delay some deployments."
As the Navy moves through the fiscal year's third quarter, officials are preparing to take several actions to limit 2016 spending:
- Deferring overhauls on four surface ships and one submarine from the fourth quarter of fiscal 2016 into fiscal 2017’s first quarter;
- "descoping" or deferring continuous maintenance for the assault ships Makin Island and America amphibious ready groups and the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group;
- Restricting Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1) flying hours, including imposing a four-month no-fly period, and limiting other flying hour program costs; and
- deferring "various other contracts."
The Carl Vinson, America and Makin Island recently completed major overhauls and are expected to deploy in the coming year. CVW-1, on the other hand, completed a full deployment in 2015, is now in a "maintenance phase," and is not expected to deploy again until 2019.
The Navy also notes that a decision announced May 2 to extend the current deployment of the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group by one month to combat ISIS will require an additional $91 million in operations spending.
Pushing the five ship overhauls into next year, the Navy official noted, will add to 2017's scheduling problems and increase required funding by $473 million.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is urging Congress to increase maintenance funding and Thursday, he chaired a combined hearing of his Seapower and Projection Forces and Readiness subcommittees to focus on the issue. Forbes had hoped to draw special attention by holding the hearing in Norfolk aboard the soon-to-deploy carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, but the effort was scotched by the Pentagon, although Forbes and other House Armed Services Committee members on Monday toured the flattop and several other ships and facilities.
"We are not currently providing our Navy with the resources it needs to do what we ask," Forbes said Thursday in his opening statement. "At least not without burning out our ships and our planes and our sailors and undermining our long-term readiness."
The Navy itself, Forbes said, notes that the service is at its "lowest readiness point in many years.
"The resources we have been allocating to that critical function of government have been woefully inadequate," he intoned.
While Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Phil Davidson read an opening statement, the hearing sought to bring the readiness issue closer to the deck plates, and four Navy captains testified as to the effects on their commands and communities.
Capt. Randy Stearns, commodore of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, said one in four aircraft were usually deployed and noted there were extreme issues with older F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters and CH-53 helicopters. Non-deploying aircraft were regularly being robbed of parts to keep deployed planes flying, he said, with the result that the fleet had little surge capacity should more aircraft be needed in action.
Asked where the problems began, Stearns replied, "sequestration – we've never caught up."
Problems are being compounded, he noted, as new aircraft are being used at rates far higher than anticipated.
"We're chewing up about 40 aircraft hours a month" on each F/A-18 E and F Super Hornet, he said, adding to the maintenance load to deployed aircraft, Fleet Readiness Centers and naval aviation depots.
Capt. Greg McRae, deputy commander of Submarine Squadron Six at Norfolk, detailed a particularly egregious case of a submarine overhaul that, for a variety of reasons, has nearly doubled in length and is leading to further issues.
The Los Angeles-class submarine Albany, McRae told the subcommittees, had been scheduled to enter Norfolk Naval Shipyard in October 2013 for a planned 28 and one-half month overhaul – known as an availability in Navy parlance. But at the time, he said, "we were going through sequestration and there was a lot of instability, so the availability was pushed to January 2014."
Once in the shipyard, workforce challenges due to hiring freezes and funding shortfalls began to affect the overhaul. "About every three months we would get a new schedule pushing timelines to the right," he said. As a result, the Albany is still in the shipyard. "Today, we're looking at a 43-month overhaul.
"The impact is significant," McRae added. "Certainly the operational days lost – days we will never recover those. It's also had an impact on other submarines and crews."
The submarine Boise, he said, was to have entered the shipyard after Albany. "But because of Albany's delays, we've been extending Boise in three-month intervals," he said. Because of needed maintenance, "we are no longer capable of operating Boise at sea after this summer," he cautioned. "Any more delays after that," he said, and the ship will remain pierside.
"It's almost double the lost [operational] days if you think of it in that perspective," McRae noted. "Clearly it's a significant impact."
The Albany's crew has suffered from the prolonged shipyard period.
"One of the tertiary effects is the impact to crew and families," McRae said. "Because of the Albany delays, many sailors will start and end their submarine tour in the shipyard – not something they signed up for."
The ship's commanding officer, McRae noted, expected to wrap up the overhaul period, prepare the ship to deploy and take her to sea.
"But he will be relieved with his ship still in the shipyard. Because of that he has decided to retire from the service."
McRae added that Albany's executive officer and chief engineering officer, unable to demonstrate their proficiency at operating a nuclear submarine, were not selected for command or to become XO.
"The engineer was by all measures a great performer," McRae said, "but in the shipyard he could not demonstrate that expertise and he did not select for XO. Inhibiting their ability to go to sea certainly inhibits their professional development," he declared.