The last time the Navy faced big funding cuts, dozens of highly trained fighter pilots at Oceana Naval Air Station were relegated to desk jobs.
It was the summer of 1994, and the post-Cold War budget ax was falling.
To help pay for a peacekeeping mission in Haiti and other unexpected operations abroad, the Navy grounded entire squadrons of F-14 Tomcats.
Commanders reduced flying hours to a minimum and eliminated aircraft carrier practice operations. Mechanics maintained the few planes that were flying by harvesting parts from the jets that weren’t. Crews wrapped the empty airframes in airtight bags and parked them in storage, a procedure that came to be known as “bagging the jets.”
The result once funding was restored: Pilot skills were degraded, jet lifespans were shortened, and talented aircraft mechanics left the service in droves.
Navy brass learned that systematically shutting down air wings is a terribly inefficient way to save money.
And now they’re preparing to do it again.
“Unfortunately, right now we’re going to have to do it the hard way,” said Adm. Bill Gortney, the four-star head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk. “We’re going to have to shut them down.”
Bagging jets is just one of numerous short-term cost-cutting measures likely to affect sailors and their equipment under sweeping defense cuts set to begin next month if Congress doesn’t pass a new budget or act to avert across-the-board reductions demanded by sequestration.
In an interview with The Virginian-Pilot last week, Gortney warned that steep cuts in maintenance and training would mean fewer warships at sea and fewer fighter jets in the sky – and more uncertainty for the men and women who operate them.
Already this month, defense officials took the unprecedented step of canceling the imminent deployment of an aircraft carrier and halting plans to overhaul another.
The changes forced thousands of Hampton Roads sailors to rethink living arrangements and left many wondering what the next few months might hold.
And that’s just the beginning.
If Congress fails to act, the Navy says it will shut down four of its nine carrier air wings, end most naval operations in South America and Europe, cancel routine maintenance for more than 20 ships and keep several submarines in port.
Gortney said some ships won’t be able to deploy as scheduled, while those that do make it to sea could remain there indefinitely, adding stress to the families of thousands of sailors.
Further, he said, forgoing ship and aircraft maintenance will reduce the service lives of multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment, increase the likelihood of malfunctions and cost the service significantly more in the long run.
He also warned of declines in safety and morale.
“It’s corrosive to the force,” Gortney said. “And the longer and deeper we’re in it, the more corrosive it is.”
The dire scenario isn’t what Gortney envisioned when he took control of the region’s top naval command five months ago. As the head of Fleet Forces, he is responsible for providing well-trained and properly equipped resources – ships, planes and the sailors who make them go – to meet the Navy’s operational requirements abroad.
When the budget ax falls from on high, it’s his job to make the math work – to figure out a new game plan in real time and determine how he can best support requirements with the forces he has available.
The budget impasse has made that difficult, Gortney said. Plans are changing daily. And that uncertainty is trickling down through the ranks.
“I need a number,” Gortney said. “Sailors want predictability. We want predictability.”
Instead, defense officials have instructed the Navy to plan for the worst – slashing operations and maintenance spending by more than 40 percent during the second half of this fiscal year.
To illustrate the impacts, Gortney stepped up to a whiteboard in his office. He drew a crude graph representing the ebb and flow of a ship’s readiness and maintenance cycle, and how much it costs to pay for it.
Coming off a deployment, Gortney said while drawing a dip in the line representing readiness, a ship and its crew typically go into depot-level maintenance before beginning the process of preparing for the next deployment. He compared it to an athlete soaking in a tub after an exhausting competition.
“The problem that we are confronted with now … is that bathtub is gonna get very deep, and it’s gonna get very long,” Gortney said. “It’s gonna get drawn out a very long time. And the deeper and longer we are in that bathtub, the longer and more expensive it costs to get out.”
If ship and airplane maintenance cycles are interrupted to cut costs, Gortney estimates it would cost the Navy three times the short-term savings to restore proficiency.
Retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute, likened the scenario to a frugal car owner forgoing regular tuneups.
“You might think you’re saving money by not maintaining your car,” said Daly, the former deputy commander and chief of staff at Fleet Forces. “But in the end, if you skip that 60,000-mile tuneup and end up losing a timing belt, you’ll be sitting with a $2,400 bill to replace your engine. That’s not very smart.”
That’s basically what happened when the Navy grounded fighter jets in the mid-1990s, he said. Bringing pilots and airplanes back up to speed took the better part of a year and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It would be cheaper to just maintain the proficiency of the air wing,” Daly said. “But when you’re being squeezed, you are sometimes forced into making an uneconomic decision.”
So what’s the long-term cumulative effect of building a strategy around a flawed economic model?
Adm. Jon Greenert, the chief of naval operations, laid it out in concise terms last week in testimony before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee:
Equipment will be degraded, and sailors will lose confidence.
“Our folks are stressed by the uncertainty about their jobs, their operational schedules and, more importantly, their futures,” Greenert said.
Those warnings are reality for some 5,000 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman and its strike group. Faced with an uncertain funding stream, defense officials canceled the carrier’s deployment this month, less than 48 hours before the ship was set to leave on an eight-month cruise from Norfolk Naval Station.
The Truman eventually got under way last week – but just long enough to allow its air wing to fly back to bases in Virginia Beach, Washington and Florida.
Jenelle Hatzung, whose husband is an aircraft maintenance officer aboard the Truman, said the last-minute change has made it difficult for her family to make long-term plans.
She expected some uncertainty, she said, but the recent changes “make me feel like I don’t really have any control of anything in my life.”
Her concerns were echoed by sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, who learned this month that the Navy doesn’t have enough money to begin the ship’s midlife overhaul in Newport News.
Like the Lincoln, the guided missile destroyer Porter and the submarine Montpelier would be moored indefinitely in Norfolk under the proposed spending cuts. Both ships are awaiting significant repairs following collisions last year.
After a Japanese oil tanker slammed into the Porter in the Strait of Hormuz last August, the ship needed a $2.2 million patch-job in the United Arab Emirates so that it could steam home under its own power.
There might not be money for similar emergency repairs should the full weight of budget cuts crash down next month, a defense official said.
The prospect of a U.S. ship and its crew indefinitely drydocked overseas seems farfetched, but it could become a reality.
“The funding is coming down, and we’re going to have to prioritize,” Gortney said.
During a question-and-answer session with sailors in Norfolk last month, Greenert promised to do everything in his power to protect their pay and benefits from cuts.
Regardless of what happens in Washington, he told some 3,000 sailors, “It won’t affect your pay; it won’t affect your retirement; it won’t affect your medical coverage.”
But in comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned that by the end of the year, the Pentagon might not have enough money to pay for Tricare, the health care system for service members, retirees and their families.
The result, according to Carter: The government would be forced to choose between kicking bills into next year or cutting back on care for service members’ families and retirees.
James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College, said the Navy runs the risk of losing its most skilled sailors.
The former surface warfare officer said he left the Navy in the 1990s, in part because of big cuts in defense spending.
“Part of the reason I got out was, it didn’t look like there was a whole lot of a future for me,” Holmes said.
Two things might keep service members from leaving in the short term, he said. Sailors are better paid compared with a decade ago, and there aren’t many opportunities in the private sector.
“There is a tipping point, though, when sailors will begin to leave,” Holmes said.
Morale is among Gortney’s top concerns.
“Sailors join the Navy to steam on ships, steam on submarines, work on airplanes, fly airplanes,” said Gortney, a career aviator. “Surface warriors want to drive ships. Submariners want to drive submarines. We want to fly airplanes. It affects morale. … That’s not what they were trained to do.”
Top brass have warned of a more dire consequence if the Navy isn’t allowed to shrink its global mission to match economic realities: more accidents.
Over time, the Navy has learned that six-month deployments are ideal. Seven-month deployments are manageable. And eight months – the standard deployment length for carriers lately – can be done in a pinch.
Deploying ships longer than that while reducing the number of port visits – another looming budget consequence – could lead to fatigued sailors and hazardous results, Daly said.
“They’re out there doing dangerous things, launching airplanes, recovering airplanes, handling ordnance,” Daly said. “You want them to be alert and focused.”
Gortney, too, is keenly aware of the risks.
Should one $55 million F/A-18 Super Hornet drop from the sky because it was rushed back into service or because it was pushed too hard between maintenance cycles, the Navy would instantly lose much of the savings from grounding squadrons.
The admiral pledged not to go down that route.
“We’re not going to do this any faster than safe,” Gortney said. “We won’t push out anybody who isn’t ready for the mission.”