America’s looming fiscal crisis delivered real-world consequences last week with a pair of blows to one of the U.S. Navy’s (USN) cornerstones: carrier strike groups (CSGs).
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little announced that the rotation schedule for USN CSGs had been reevaluated, and all future deployments rescheduled. Previously, U.S. military policy had been to keep a pair of CSGs in the Persian Gulf at any given moment, mainly to provide deterrence against the Iranians and their growing nuclear weapons and guided missile programs. The reason given was the ongoing fiscal confusion generated by the continuing resolution (CR) that is currently funding the Department of Defense (DoD) in lieu of a finished national defense appropriations act.
The first such CSG affected is Carrier Strike Group 10, built around the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), Carrier Air Wing 3 (CVW 3), the USS Gettysburg (CG 64), the German frigate Hamburg (F220), and the 1st Combined Destroyer Squadron, all which were to have deployed just two days hence. The CSG had just conducted its final pre-deployment certification exercise, COMPTUEX, and already had embarked CVW-3.
The effects of this stunning announcement are already rebounding throughout the U.S. Navy, and especially in Tidewater Virginia, where the Truman CSG is homeported. Presently, there are no plans to deploy the Truman CSG any time in the near future, but to instead use her CSG as a ready reserve in the event of a crisis somewhere around the globe. Until needed, the Truman and the rest of her group will conduct short underway training evolutions to help maintain their combat proficiency. And while keeping the Truman and her group home will save the Navy approximately $300 million in operations and maintenance costs (food, fuel, spare parts, and forward deployment/combat pay), much of that savings is coming straight out of the paychecks of sailors and Marines who had planned on this deployment, and now will be staying home in Norfolk drawing just their standard service pay.
Already, weddings, vacations, the buying of homes, plans of starting college, and all variety of other things personally important to Navy and Marine Corps personnel, are being rescheduled, delayed, or just cancelled. Even worse, the thousands of personnel assigned to the Truman CSG are hardly the only ones being affected. The personnel assigned to the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) CSG were also notified that their planned deployment would be delayed at least a year, while CSGs on the West Coast are awaiting new dates for their 2013/14 deployments. It is this uncertainty, especially having no real idea if and when personnel are going to deploy overseas, that is putting an increased strain on sailors, Marines, and their families and loved ones. Already overstretched by a mission set that is worldwide in nature, the USN is having to “make do” with a force that is a little more than half the size of the “600-ship Navy,” that existed less than 25 years ago.
As if this news was not bad enough, on Friday, Feb. 8, the USN announced that the long-planned Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH) of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) was also being delayed indefinitely, again due to budget uncertainties of the CR. RCOH is a midlife rebuild for the Nimitz-class (CVN 68) aircraft carriers, which takes upwards of 3 years to complete and costs several billion dollars. It had been long planned that this week, the Lincoln would be moved from her birth at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., across the river to the Huntington-Ingalls Industries, Inc. (HII) Shipyard, in Newport News. Now, however, this vital maintenance and refueling program has been delayed, until some sort of budget deal is struck between the Obama administration and the Congress. Already, the following consequences are beginning to take hold:
- Lincoln RCOH duration/cost – The timeframe previously scheduled for the RCOH will have to be lengthened since the overhaul won’t commence when planned, and result in a delayed redelivery of the Lincoln to the fleet. In addition, the overall cost of the RCOH will rise, as previously ordered long-lead equipment and supplies arrive at HII and need to be warehoused.
- Industry impacts – The delay in the start of the Lincoln RCOH is already causing significant impacts to industry, especially in the Virginia Tidewater region. It is likely that local shipyard workers at HII will have to be furloughed, along with many more at the various subcontractors supporting the RCOH. In addition, the very limited warship maintenance infrastructure presently available to the U.S. Navy may need to contract, or be unable to deal with a backlog of contracts when the present budget problem is finally resolved.
- Collateral effects – in addition to the short-term impacts of delaying the Lincoln RCOH, work on other warships will necessarily be affected. There will be day-to-day impacts on the de-fueling/decommissioning of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65). In addition, the planned RCOH maintenance cycle for USS George Washington (CVN 73) will now need to be delayed to later in the decade.
These are just the first of what are likely to be many other significant cuts laid out by the Department of Defense in case sequestration does become a reality after March 1 and automatic cuts go into effect. Already, there are discussions about grounding the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team and deferring maintenance on amphibious ships and escorts. In addition, on March 27 the current CR runs out, and with a completed appropriations bill looking unlikely, the chaos caused by living in a budget environment dictated by CRs looks to continue.