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Commander Surface Force: Navy is Risking a Hollow Surface Fleet

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The head of naval surface forces fears the sea service is teetering dangerously close to an operational cliff where ships simply won’t be available to do what they need to do.Vice Adm. Tom Copeman told the Surface Navy Association Symposium on Tuesday that sailors are being pushed to keep their ships up to snuff without being given enough time, spare parts or training to do proper maintenance. The Navy, he said, has been pushing personnel harder and harder, to do more with less, for years. Copeman pointed to rampant cross-decking, where sailors are snatched from docked ships and put on board deploying ones, often hindering maintenance on the docked vessel. He also said sailors are likely as not to be unable to find the spare parts they need on board their ship when something malfunctions or breaks. Eventually, he said, a day will come when a ship that needs to deploy won’t be able to. “It’s getting harder and harder, I think, for us to look troops in the eye and say, ‘Hey, just do it and meet the standard,'” Copeman said. “Some ships can do it. Some ships can’t.” Copeman said that the surface navy’s depot maintenance budget is practically at rock bottom right now for the size of the Fleet. If the budget gets any lower, he warned that the Navy risks creating a “hollow” Fleet.

“You’ve got to make choices,” he said, “And if it was my choice—and it’s not only my choice—I’d give up force structure to get wholeness.”

Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, and commander, Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, meets Sailors aboard the Hawaii-based guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) during a tour of the ship in November. U.S. Navy Photo

Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, and commander, Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, meets Sailors aboard the Hawaii-based guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) during a tour of the ship in November. U.S. Navy Photo

The stresses aren’t new; a 2010 Navy study headed by retired Vice Adm. Philip Balisle warned that readiness has suffered in recent years, particularly after the service’s “optimal manning” experiment cut crews and maintenance. But Copeman warns that the Navy is getting closer to a tipping point, not further away.

Copeman’s stance seems to put him at odds with many people on Capitol Hill, including those supporting an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act barring the Navy from retiring some of its aging cruisers. He also voiced disagreements with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s recent memo suggesting the Navy deal with a potential $4 billion operations and maintenance budget shortfall—if Congress fails to pass a fiscal 2013 budget—by canceling maintenance availabilities. “If they cancel third- and fourth-quarter surface force availabilities, you won’t have surface force deployers in the first and second and third quarter the following year,” he said. “We’ll be in this spiral, this downward spiral, and the only way you can dig out of it is to throw tremendous amounts of resources at it, which we don’t have. I wouldn’t do it if I was [Carter],” he added, “but civilian leadership is civilian leadership. I follow orders just like everybody else.”