Seen here, ships from the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group are underway in the western Pacific Ocean.

Seen here, ships from the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group are underway in the western Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Walter M. Wayman

Congress Must Match the Money to the Navy's Strategy

How the nation’s strong naval ambition may be undermined by Congress’ weak resourcing.

The top officers of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard last week released a new national maritime strategy that emphasizes “warfighting first” and “being where it matters, when it matters.” Strong in language and upbeat in tone, they confidently laid out the services’ roles in supporting the nation’s interests around the world. Just three days prior, however, their tone in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee was anything but upbeat. With equally strong language, the same leaders joined the Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in painting a grim picture of the effects of sequestration and the threat it poses to naval strategy if left unresolved.

The nation’s new maritime strategy reflects Congress' desire for strong US presence abroad in order to make the nation more secure at home. That strong presence requires ships. If Congress is going to require the level of ambition that is articulated in the strategy, then they must end sequestration and properly fund the ships and support the men and women who crew them.

“The hard truth of providing the presence the American people and our nation’s leaders expect is that it requires platforms,” said Mabus. However, sequestration lessens the availability of those ships, aircraft and other vessels. For example, instead of three aircraft carrier strike groups and three amphibious ready groups available for major combat, or so-called contingency, operations, the Navy has only been able to maintain one of each. Several ship deployments were cancelled, munitions and aircraft parts purchases slowed, and depot-level maintenance for aircraft delayed. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert testified that it will take three years for carrier groups and five years for their amphibious counterparts to recover from the effects of the 2013 sequestration, and even then only if the looming sequestration is repealed and some semblance of stable budgeting achieved. If sequestration hits the service again, maintenance again will be delayed, casting doubt on the services’ ability to respond just as current world events call for greater U.S. naval presence. Sequestration also will force the Navy to buy fewer ships in the next four years, predicts the Congressional Budget Office.

(RelatedNavy To Increase the Number of Deployed Ships to the Middle East, Asia)

Congress’ inability to provide adequate budgeting also impacts the men and women who use those machines. The strategy says that the services must “develop a motivated and relevant future force of Sailors [and] Marines ….” Yet in his testimony regarding talent retention Greenert warned, “The threat of looming sequestration, along with a recovering economy, is a troubling situation.”

Due to the mismatch between the limited available assets and continued national desire for naval presence around the world, deployment lengths continue to rise. The dates and length of those deployments shift with little warning, creating additional stress on families and eroding their faith in the services. Mabus told the Senate, “Missing holidays, birthdays and other significant family events is hard enough, but not knowing when it will happen makes things even more difficult.”

Greenert identified specific high-demand skill sets such as pilots, nuclear-trained officers, and SEALs that are already seeing downward trends in retention. Add to all of this the public discussion about rollback of several military benefits as a budget-saving measure and it becomes a perfect recipe for a talent drain at a time when the men and women of the services are needed even more. While Congress is quick to honor those that serve, their words only go so far. To truly honor them it must provide the funds needed to let the sailors and Marines do their job in a predictable fashion.

While the political wrangling over the budget will be difficult, the required actions are simple. In the short term, Congress must repeal sequestration. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., went so far as to call it “a self-inflicted national security crisis.” Almost every member of the committee called for its end. In the medium term, Congress should fund the Navy and Marine Corps to the levels President Barack Obama requested in the fiscal 2016 budget. Finally, in the long term Congress must get back to providing a predictable budgetary process. The last real budget was passed in 2009. Continuing resolutions funded the government, delaying or canceling modernization and long-term research and development projects. If Congress wants a capable, modern force that continues to enjoy primacy on the sea and can fulfill this ambitious strategy, then it must give the naval and maritime services the ability to plan further than a few months out.

The math is easy: “X” level of ambition requires “X” level of resourcing.  For the Navy and Marine Corps, that means building and maintaining enough ships and providing a level of predictability to the Sailors and Marines who deploy upon them. If Congress continues to expect a particular level of strategic ambition but fails to resource at that level, then at some point in the not too distant future the naval services will be unable to execute the nation’s will at the moment it is most needed.