As Congress debates a 2017 budget deal to keep the government open past the end of April, Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, testified yesterday before the House Armed Services Committee on the impact that a new Continuing Resolution would have on the U.S. Navy’s readiness. A high tempo of operations stretching back to the start of the Global War on Terror, exacerbated by uncertainty in the budget process over most of the past decade, has led to severe gaps in readiness, especially in naval aviation. Enduring shortfalls in maintenance and training have reached a point that affects the U.S. Navy’s ability to surge additional forces in support of a new conflict, diminishing its ability to credibly deter one from breaking out.
The entire U.S. budget has been subject to severe constraints since the Budget Control Act’s mandatory cuts, called sequestration, went into effect in 2013 (and will remain in place until 2021 unless repealed). Compounding the limits imposed by sequestration, Congressional gridlock has led to chains of temporary budgets called Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that simply project the previous year’s budget forward. CRs inhibit the Navy’s ability to reallocate money and fund new contracts, causing purchasing delays, especially for new ships.
The United States has already been operating under a CR for the past six months, and controversy over domestic spending cuts to pay for defense increases in President Donald Trump’s 2017 budget proposal threaten more gridlock and potentially more CRs. Prominent members of the House Armed Services Committee are cautiously optimistic that another CR will be avoided, but the timeframe is short and the politics remain uncertain.
Richardson minced no words to Congress about the effect of yet another CR; the Navy would be unable to purchase planned ships, address known cyber vulnerabilities, invest in new advanced anti-submarine capabilities, buy needed repair parts for ships and aircraft, or replenish depleted missile inventories.
This is not a new dynamic, but the result of years of erratic or reduced funding. Richardson explained that, “We have not had sufficient resources to maintain the fleet at current levels of operational tempo, to modernize it to adequately address evolving threats, and to invest in new capabilities to maintain an edge into the future. Our competitors are gaining on us, and our advantage is shrinking.”
Naval Aviation Readiness Crisis
Future threats and capabilities aside, the U.S. Navy is stretched to meet the requirements it has today. This has been felt most acutely by the Navy’s air arm, and especially by the strike aircraft used to attack targets on land. Naval aviation has been able to meet its current operational requirements, but its depth has all but disappeared.
Congressional and Defense staff explained to DefenseNews in February that historically about one-third of aircraft are unavailable due to maintenance requirements, but that higher operational demands and lower maintenance budgets have doubled that number since 2012. Today over 60 percent of Navy F/A-18 strike aircraft, and almost three-quarters of Marine Corps F-18s, are unfit to fly.
The massive maintenance backlogs and increased wear on airframes means that there is very little capacity to surge additional air forces for a new conflict, especially against a near-peer adversary with advanced air capabilities of their own, like China or Russia. A year ago Navy officials testified to Congress that it would take six to 12 months to get an additional fighter squadron ready to deploy with a carrier strike group above and beyond what was already scheduled to deploy. In the event of a major contingency requiring combat aircraft, one extra squadron in a year may be too little, too late.
While a major influx of maintenance funding would alleviate some of the immediate backlog, it does little to address a long-term capacity problem. The increased wear and deferred maintenance caused by high operational tempo means that airframes are reaching their design-limit of flight hours years earlier than expected. As a result, the Navy is considering extensive service-live extension modifications to help meet projected aircraft shortfalls in the 2020s and 2030s. But this represents an additional cost the Navy will have to absorb while still trying to keep the production of the F/A-18’s replacement, the F-35, on schedule.
As originally conceived, the F-35C, was supposed to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2015. Cost overruns and technical problems have delayed its expected IOC until 2018 or even 2019, meaning the F-35C will not actually be combat-deployable until 2021. Because of these delays, the existing F/A-18 squadrons have had to absorb additional missions and flying hours the Navy anticipated the F-35C would have begun to pick up by now. This only further exacerbates the F/A-18’s current readiness and long-term service life issues.
Underscoring the scope of the problem the U.S. Navy faces, even the larger defense budget supplement proposed by Trump, which itself remains in doubt, may be inadequate. Richardson told the House that the Navy needed an additional $2.1 billion dollars this year just to address immediate readiness shortfalls that will leave more planes unable to fly and ships tied to the pier. The effect, he said, is that “our ability to deter potential adversaries will be undercut, and our allies and partners will become less certain of our capabilities, which will further intensify the competition [with countries like China and Russia].”
But the Navy’s deterrent effect is already undercut. While Navy and Marine aircraft are engaged in combat missions against Islamic State, the fleet is still more-or-less deploying at peacetime levels, and that poses a major problem in the event of a major wartime demand. If the striking arm of the Navy’s most potent force-projection asset, its aircraft carriers, is already stretched to the point that readying additional reserve squadrons for war could take upwards of a year, then a major power has to be deterred from attempting a fait accompli – say a Chinese action in the South or East China Seas – by forces already deployed. If it isn’t, its leaders know they have months to consolidate their gains before the United States could bring more naval air forces to the fight.