It’s the Navy’s biggest political football, and its leaders punted.
Congress and the public care a lot about the size of the fleet, and the threat of how it would shrink became one of the Navy’s foremost arguments against massive across-the-board budget cuts two years ago.
Those cuts are again looming — some observers believe inevitable — and yet the Navy’s top officer didn’t offer that argument, even when pressed at the first of what’s likely to be many hearings about the impending budget shortfall.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenerttold Congress Jan. 28 that major cuts to the fleet’s numbers from sequestration budget cuts are off the table.
In an exchange with freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, Greenert said that previous warnings that the service would shrink to about 255 ships, or lower, isn’t happening, leaving some observers scratching their heads about how the service would absorb another 10 percent whack off its budget, to the tune of roughly $15 billion.
“That was a scenario based on our using force structure retirement to garner savings. And mandates from Congress … have kind of taken that off the table,” Greenert testified. “So I would look at other avenues, probably other modernization.”
While acknowledging that plans to mortgage future capability to pay for readiness now is worrisome, “that’s more likely where we would go for that kind of savings,” he said.
Budget experts say the next round of cuts could look a lot like the last round of cuts: cancelled deployments, truncated training cycles, delayed or cancelled weapons and modernization upgrades, and delayed infrastructure and maintenance. All of which add up to setbacks and headaches for fleet sailors.
“One thing you can do is cut the training cycle,” said Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics, and a current senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “You can cut flying hours; instead of 20 hours a month, now maybe you have 18 or 15 hours a month.”