Cash-strapped Navy puts hold on transfers, goodwill visits by ships
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
A cash-strapped Navy has halted 14,000 duty station moves, is reducing by one-third the sailing time of non-deployed ships and is cutting back on aviation flight hours and ship visits to U.S. cities to counter a $930 million ship repair and manpower budget shortfall, officials said.
That funding backlog is being addressed by Congress; U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on Thursday added $190 million to a defense supplemental bill.
The mid-year funds are intended to pay for repairs to the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser Port Royal, which ran aground in February off Honolulu airport, as well as to fix the submarine Hartford and amphibious ship New Orleans following their collision in March in the Strait of Hormuz.
Inouye also increased Navy personnel funding by $230 million to address a $350 million manpower-cost shortfall, officials said. The Navy expects to recoup about $89 million with the duty station freeze, Navy Times reported.
The proposed fiscal 2009 defense supplemental bill also includes $155.1 million for ship repairs. That still leaves the Navy more than $230 million shy this year on ship maintenance and repair.
The demands of U.S. commanders around the globe, related to wars and other missions, have contributed to the Navy burning through its budget.
U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said he appreciated the recent proposed ship repair funding additions, but he remains "deeply concerned about Navy readiness."
Webb and 10 other senators last Monday called on Inouye and the Senate Appropriations Committee to fully fund the maintenance shortfall, while also raising alarm over surface fleet preparedness.
"If this requirement is not funded through the remaining FY-09 supplemental, we are deeply concerned that the Navy's near-term readiness and long-term fleet sustainment will be placed at greater risk," the senators said.
They added that there are "clear indications" that the surface fleet is already experiencing "troubling readiness degradations," according to Navy assessments.
Additionally, Webb and the other senators said the ship-repair industrial base would experience "adverse consequences" if the Navy is forced to scale back work because of the funding deficit.
"Ship-repair companies will have no alternative but to lay off skilled workers," the group said.
The Navy recently announced for at least the remainder of this fiscal year a hold on what's known as a "Permanent Change of Station" for 14,000 sailors who hadn't yet received official orders for a move.
A new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. A Navy memo said the hold will primarily affect fourth quarter fiscal 2009 and some first quarter 2010 moves.
"It's across the fleet, and it's all about our budget," said Command Master Chief Bill Holz at Navy Region Hawai'i. "We've got to live well within our budget, and if we can't, we've got to look at areas where we can conserve."
Holz said with the recession, sailors are staying in the Navy, and "the last numbers I've heard, we've got like 3,000 or 3,200 people more than what we're budgeted for."
"One of the ways that we can save some money, or conserve some money, is to basically put on hold all the transfers, and use that money to pay our people," he added.
Sailors are unofficially told of a permanent change of station, or PCS, and then official orders follow. Individuals with orders still move, and the freeze has exemptions for sailors separating from the Navy, among others.
Jeanette Davey, a Navy spouse whose husband is based at Pearl Harbor, thought they'd be leaving in June and would be back with family after two years in Hawai'i, but found out they were on hold.
Most families move over the summer in between school years, but the halt in duty station changes now means some children will be changing schools mid-year.
"I have been able to gather that this is something that affects the Navy often every year — (that) they normally have to ask for additional money, but having it happen this early in the fiscal year is a huge shock to everyone I have spoken to," Davey said.
Holz, the command master chief for Navy Region Hawai'i, said the freeze at Pearl Harbor could affect a maximum of 618 sailors and 805 family members, but the actual figure will be lower — possibly by a third — because some will make a move within Hawai'i from one command to another.
Lt. Cmdr. Phil Rosi, a spokesman for Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., said as part of the austerity steps being taken, nondeployed ships will spend about one-third fewer days at sea for activities such as training as a fuel savings measure. Simulators will be used more.
When nondeploying ships do go to sea, they may operate under reduced engine capacity, or on one propeller if it's a two-propeller ship, Rosi said.
Reduced operations for air wings and fewer U.S. port visits also are expected. Rosi said the Navy gets hundreds of port visit requests each year, and in fiscal 2008, the Navy made 112 such stops.
As of March, the Navy had made about 51, and of 60 requests remaining, 20 will be granted, he said.
Rosi said the mitigation measures are being taken so the Navy can pay for its ship maintenance availabilities.
"We're continuing to deploy our ships and aircraft ready to meet our requirements," Rosi said. He added that "we are certainly monitoring the additional appropriations that may be coming in, and we'll make adjustments as appropriate."
U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, said at a March 25 House subcommittee hearing that the Navy wants to extend the operational life of its ships to achieve a 313-ship fleet.
"However, the Navy is presently experiencing a series of incidents that raise concerns regarding possible systemic problems with the Navy's manning, training and maintenance," Ortiz said.
In addition to recent collisions, groundings and a fatal accident, in the past three years 10 ships' commanders have been relieved of duty for failure to maintain training or material readiness standards, Ortiz said.
In 2008, six Navy ships, including the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser Chosin, failed inspections, with the Chosin declared "unfit for sustained combat operations."
On the positive side, between 2003 and 2008, 191 material inspections were conducted, with a pass rate of more than 91 percent. The Navy said the "high-visibility failures" in 2008 led to a "back-to-basics focus" for surface ships.
At the March 25 hearing, Rear Adm. Philip Cullom, director of the fleet readiness division, said surface ships have not been maintained "with the same rigor or discipline" as submarines and aircraft carriers.
To provide a surge-capable surface force, maintenance plans limit the time ships spend in depot availability and spread maintenance into continuous pier-side availabilities.
The focus on "short-term, get the ship under way type of work" instead of life-cycle focused work contrasts with the approach on subs and aircraft carriers, Cullom said.
Despite the challenges, ship readiness for the Navy's surface force "remains strong," said Cullom, who added that the Navy does not have a "hollow force."
Officials said a Ship Life Cycle Management Activity is being set up to assess and manage maintenance requirements through the life of surface ships.