By the time the backlog of U.S. Navy aircraft maintenance work created by this year's federal budget impasse is carried out and the service has bounced back to a “normal” level, the 2018 Winter Olympics could be in full swing and a new U.S. president will be facing his or her first midterm elections.
Five years is how long it will take the Navy to recover from the backlog that accumulates by the end of fiscal 2014, according to the chief of naval operations (CNO), Adm. Jonathan Greenert. And that assumes the best-case scenario that there is no significant government shutdown this year, that Congress finds a way to keep sequestration from happening again, and, of course, that there are no new wars in the interim.
“We'll cancel a lot of aircraft availabilities,” 191 of approximately 700 planned projects, Greenert says for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. “Last year, we canceled about 90. So we are getting a backlog that is concerning in that regard. And it will take a long time. If we restored the budget after 2014 and said, 'OK, you have got a full-up operations and maintenance budget,' it will take about five years to get that backlog in aircraft maintenance down.”
Across the U.S. military, the armed services are seeing a growing backlog of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) work for their aircraft and other vital weapons equipment. The backlog is based not in the wars fought overseas in recent years, but in political gridlock on Capitol Hill that led to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and its annual automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. In turn, chiefs of staffs like the CNO and other commanders are beginning to have to incorporate deferred MRO as part of their force structure planning.
“Because we will prioritize meeting current presence requirements, we will be able to preserve 95% of the forward presence originally directed under the fiscal 2014 Global Force Management Allocation Plan,” Greenert says. “However, this is only about half of the combatant commanders' original request.”
The CNO states that without help from Congress, the Navy probably will have to cancel about half of its surface-ship “availabilities”—Navy jargon for MRO—affecting 34 of 55 planned surface-ship projects in 2014. The move would net $950 million near term, but its effects will cascade quickly. “This missed maintenance will inevitably take time off the expected service life of our ships and aircraft, which in turn will make it harder to sustain even the smaller fleet we will have if the BCA caps remain in place for the long term,” according to Greenert. He cites a recent Center for Naval Analysis study in which the toll for canceling one maintenance period at the 10-year point in a destroyer's life is estimated to shorten its overall service viability by about five years.
Worse yet, the CNO is beginning to be concerned about the supporting infrastructure, too. In fiscal 2013, the Navy cut spending on facilities upgrade and restoration by about 30%. “We've done very little shore maintenance upgrades,” Greenert says. “And if there is an area that I'm concerned about and I have to watch closely, it is our shore readiness. This is where we are taking a lot of the reductions, and we have got to be careful of that.”
The Army, of course, also is experiencing its own MRO difficulties. According to its chief, Gen. Raymond Odierno, in 2013 the armed service deferred maintenance on 172 aircraft, more than 900 vehicles, almost 2,000 weapons and 10,000-plus pieces of communications equipment. For units not deploying, the Army reduced routine maintenance costs, spurring about $73.5 million more in deferred MRO that carried into 2014. And the hits will keep coming under another round of sequestration.
“We will be unable to maintain the software upgrades necessary to sustain aerial network operations,” Odierno says. “The Army software sustainment program will be at high risk due to the reduction in funding for 135 systems that affect network security, systems operations, integration and information assurance.”
Finally, even though the Army is viewed as a leading budgetary target after receiving the majority of off-budget supplemental spending during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Odierno notes the nation still relies on Army forces as a strategic hedge in the near future. “The Army is responsible for maintaining pre-positioned sets of equipment that serve as the strategic hedge in critical regions of the world in order to allow for rapid deployment of soldiers in times of crisis,” he notes. “Sequestration has forced the Army to defer maintenance and new equipment fielding of these sets—impacting each combatant commander's war plans.”