NavWeek: Sequestration More Than A Fleeting Concern For U.S. Navy

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You would have to cast a net far, wide and deep to find anyone of U.S. Navy rank who doubts sequestration will happen. Instead of dealing with “what-if” scenarios, the brass is talking more about “this will happen when … “

And the first big thing that will happen is that the Navy will find itself in quite a quandary.

After more than a decade of neglect – first by the Pentagon as it focused on fighting two ground wars half a world away and second by Navy leadership that allowed major maintenance to lapse, particularly on its surface fleet, as it trained resources on helping support those conflicts – the nation’s naval forces were about to get a big boost from the U.S. military Pacific pivot.

To prepare for the shift, the Navy was set for renaissance of sorts – repairing and upgrading destroyers and other surface fleet vessels, investing in combat systems technology improvements and finally going to sea with whole new classes of vessels like the Littoral Combat Ship or the Military Sealift Command’s Joint High Speed Vessel to penetrate areas of the region where bigger warships might be unwelcome or unable to operate.

But sequestration puts nearly all of that on hold – and in jeopardy. While the planned March 1 LCS-1 USS Freedom’s deployment to Singapore is “protected” – as are some other Pacific-related operations – every other program is adrift in doubt.

That’s because of the way sequestration works, which, as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has said more than once, is “mindless.” It is a mandated slice off every program and when you are building, fixing or maintaining ships there is no such thing as cutting a vessel by percentage points or putting it to sea – safely – with a certain percentage of critical systems operating correctly.

Navy officials say they more than understand the need to cut funding now. But they want the ability to determine where those cuts should be – they want the ability to reprogram their money to fund what they need now to operate the vessels, aircraft and other equipment where and how missions require.

Few in Washington think that will happen – lawmakers hate to relinquish power in any measure.

If the Navy could spend money they way the brass thought best, though, the service would face some extremely tough choices. Ship maintenance must be done. Expensive carrier overhaul and deactivation work cannot be shirked. In other words – it is going to cost a bundle to keep the current fleet shipshape and mission-ready.

That means the financial sleight of hand could affect some of the Navy’s most cherished and desired programs. Some LCS buys, for example, could be delayed or even cancelled. While Navy officials say the Flight III DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyer work is sailing smoothly – as well as the accompanying air and missile defense radar (AMDR), the effort also could prove to be too costly right now.

Another program that could see some slide would be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, especially as the Navy continues to eye unmanned aircraft for carrier operations.

It is not that the Navy does not want the ships or aircraft. Indeed, the Navy brass is clear that it feel it needs as many LCS vessels it can buy. But the service must maintain its current fleet to meet missions it has to complete now.

Unless those in the Obama Administration, Pentagon and Congress change policy and accompanying naval missions, then the Navy is on the hook to do that work and it needs the current roster of ships, aircraft and related equipment in good working order – now.

With everything on the table, there are no sure bets. And a change in Navy leadership could upset all of the current thinking. But Adm. Jonathan Greenert is just now coming into his own as chief of naval operations and there is no indication that Secretary Mabus plans on exiting any time soon.

So it looks like this is the leadership that will navigate through sequestration. Recent deployment and ship-work cancellations show how serious Navy leaders see the situation. To some in Congress and the public realm the Navy actions may appear to be grandstanding with a bit of a Chicken-Little feel.

But, with the money they have in hand, the constraints on how they can spend it and the way they need to operate, maintain or build their ships, Navy officials feel they have little choice but to stick to the current course.

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