CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the re-work required on the recent USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) maintenance availability, due to source error. The ship required seven percent rework and saw a 42 percent growth in work.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Without a readiness-focused supplemental spending bill passed by lawmakers this spring, the Navy and Marine Corps would stop flying at home and ship and submarine maintenance availabilities would be canceled, the vice chief of naval operations and assistant commandant of the Marine Corps said at a hearing today.
The continuing resolution currently funding the government at last year’s spending levels is set to expire on April 28, 2017, and even if lawmakers could pass the Fiscal Year 2017 spending bill for the second half of the fiscal year, budget caps already in place mean that the Navy would receive about $5 billion less than it did in FY 2016. Having started the year, then, at a higher spending rate, dropping down to the FY 2017 budget would cause the Navy to almost immediately run out of operations and maintenance dollars in parts of its budget.
If the Navy did not receive a supplemental spending bill with additional funds for FY 2017, “within a month we are going to have to shut down air wings, we are going to have to defer maintenance on several availabilities for our surface ships and submarine maintenance facilities,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran told the House Armed Services Committee today at a “state of the military” hearing.
“We would be just flat out out of money to be able to do that. I think everyone here knows in ’17 the Navy took a $5-billion cut in its topline, if that comes to fruition that’s $2 billion of readiness cuts we’re going to have to take, which is immediately applied to things like ship avails.”
Five attack submarines would see their maintenance availabilities canceled this year and be put at risk of being decertified if no supplemental were passed out of Congress, Moran added, in addition to similar cuts to surface ship maintenance availabilities.
Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said “we would stop flying in about July” without a supplemental. He clarified that forward forces would continue to operate, but for units training at home, “all training would cease without a supplemental, and that includes the parts money and the flying hour money.”
Even if the supplemental – which could total between $30 and $40 billion for all the armed services – is passed in a timely manner, the Navy and Marine Corps still face massive readiness issues that money can’t immediately address. Shipyards and aircraft depots face work backlogs stemming from the 2013 start of sequestration and the hiring freezes, furloughs and funding cuts it brought. Though the Navy has tried to hire thousands of people to conduct maintenance on aircraft carriers and submarines at its four public shipyards, the yards are still unable to keep up with the workload the fleet gives them.
Moran described the cycle of effects the fleet sees from this workforce challenge, using aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush’s (CVN-77) 13-month maintenance availability – which was scheduled to last eight months – as an example.
“Bush was late for a lot of reasons. One was the junior nature of the workforce,” the VCNO explained.
“We had upwards of 7 percent of rework on Bush throughout that 13-month maintenance period. So until that workforce gains that experience, we’re going to continue to see rework issues. There are some training issues involved. We are starting to see some nice turnaround in the public yards, but again, until we see that workforce mature,” performance and on-time completion of availabilities will continue to suffer.”
Additionally, USNI News understands, the ship saw 42 percent growth in work compared to the original plans for the maintenance package.
With attack submarines being considered a lowest priority at the public yards, carrier overruns cause a chain reaction: USS Albany (SSN-753) spent 48 months in the repair yard due to repeated delays as the workforce focused its attention on CVNs and SSBNs, meaning an entire crew missed out on going on deployment. And USS Boise (SSN-764) wasn’t even put into the shipyard because the workload is so far over workforce capacity, so the boat is currently sitting in Norfolk and is not certified to dive anymore while it awaits maintenance. That attack submarine will eventually be sent to a private repair yard for maintenance, but USNI News understands that won’t be able to happen until at least FY 2019 and will cost much more than putting the ship into a public yard.
Moran said putting submarines in private yards is sometimes an option when the public yards are stuck on carriers or ballistic missile subs – USS Montpelier (SSN-765) is at General Dynamics Electric Boat currently for this exact reason – but the private yards are not guaranteed to have capacity to take on extra repair work, and in a cost-constrained environment, spending the extra operations and maintenance dollars can be a hard choice to make.
“The very late determination that we no longer have the capacity at the public yards, when we turn to the private yards at that moment it becomes a very expensive proposition,” he said.
“So the degree to which we can … try to drive down cost, it makes it easier for us to have to surge the private yards when (at the public yards) the work exceeds the capacity because of delays.”
These shipyard workforce challenges do more than just affect ship repairs lower on the totem pole, House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee ranking member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) noted at the hearing. The Navy already faces a looming attack sub shortfall, and sidelining these SSNs for no reason other than lack of workforce capacity makes little sense in an increasingly dangerous world.
“We’ve heard from Adm. (Harry) Harris, [U.S. Pacific Command commander], Gen. (Curtis) Scaparrotti, [U.S. European Command commander], that they need more submarines now,” Courtney said.
“We’re not going to build a Virginia-class now because it takes five years, but if we could get the Albany, the Boise and those others out and underway, then we can respond to those combatant commanders.”
The sea services also face aviation readiness challenges that go beyond what supplemental funding can immediately fix. Moran said during the hearing that the legacy F/A-18A-D Hornets today take twice as many man hours as originally planned for repairs and maintenance, which only exacerbates the challenges at aviation depots. He said that “on a typical day in the Navy about 25 to 30 percent of our jets and our airplanes are in some kind of depot maintenance,” and overall just over half are unavailable for operations today.
“We can and we do put ready airplanes and ready aircrews forward” but “there’s no depth on the bench behind them if we had to surge forces,” the vice chief said. If a crisis broke out somewhere in the world, “we will be late to get there, if we want to have full-up equipment to get to the fight.”
On the Marine Corps side, Walters said the service requires 589 ready basic aircraft to train, workup for deployment and operate forward. The Marines have only 439 today, which is still 50 more than it had two years ago. He said readiness numbers are moving in the right direction – most pilots are now receiving between 12 and 14 hours of flight time a month, which is still short of the 16 to 18 minimum requirement but much better than at the height of the recent aviation readiness crisis. However, even reaching these ready basic aircraft and flight hour goals would put the Marines at the minimum requirement to stay current on their certifications, and still falls short of helping the pilots become proficient, or “the A-team” as Walters said. The assistant commandant said there was no correlation between the flight hours and fatal crashes that have occurred in recent years, but he said that an inability to build proficiency would hurt the service in a high-end fight.