SECNAV Spencer: FY 2020 Budget Outlook Could Hurt Fleet Readiness

December 6, 2018 2:10 PM
Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer speaks during an all-hands call onboard U.S. Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka on July 12, 2018. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer is preparing for what could be a tight Pentagon budget environment in Fiscal Year 2020 that could hurt future fleet readiness.

During FY 2018 and 2019, the Navy received funding to address several lingering maintenance problems that were affecting the fleet’s ability to perform missions, Spencer said Thursday morning during an event cohosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Navy has not received a top-line budget number for FY 2020 yet, but Spencer said his staff has been preparing for several funding possibilities, and not all of them are good.

“We are working various scenarios, and two things to say there: some of the scenarios make your eyes water with what we might have to do with the numbers,” Spencer said. “The other comment I’d make is we have such great tailwinds right now: we’ve laid the foundation and spent this money to get us going in the right direction. The bicycle is up, we are pedaling; please don’t knock us over. The waste would be absolutely stunning.”

The challenge for Spencer is he’s trying to pay for upgrading and maintaining the current force while funding development of the ships, aircraft and weapons the Navy will need in the future.

For example, Spencer said the Navy is dedicating about 15 percent of its budget to research and development, which is consistent with what happens in the corporate world. However, he’s also spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the network of drydocks used by the Navy and improve the aircraft parts replacement system.

The investments the Navy has made so far are already benefitting the operational fleet. Spencer said the Navy shaved weeks off the time it takes to replace rudder actuators on F-18s. The Navy completely overhauled the part’s logistics system, and staff training improved. Now, what took more than a month to ship out can be sent to maintainers in about two days.

“It’s a critical part and it’s one of the reasons I had such horrible availability with the F-18,” Spencer said.

In the long term, stable funding is needed for the Navy to increase the fleet size to 355 ships, Spencer said. However, he said comparisons about how many ships the U.S. has in the water in the Pacific versus how many China has, for example, don’t worry him much in the short term.

“We’re not abandoning 355; it’s law, I get it,” Spencer said. “What I look at as a footnote to 355, we also want to look at the global armada of allies and friends,” he said, noting recent international exercises aimed at boosting interoperability between the U.S. Navy and its allies and partners in strategic locations like the Pacific and the North Atlantic.

When he goes to Capitol Hill to testify about the Navy’s needs and readiness issues, Spencer said his mission is making the business case for why spending needs to occur. Readiness is his focus because it turned out to be the biggest surprise he encountered when taking the job in August 2017.

“I thought I had a good handle on the readiness issue,” Spencer said. “I was completely gobsmacked on how wide and how deep the readiness issue was. We’ve come to level ground on that.”

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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