YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A new Navy policy aimed at filling vacancies aboard ships could give sailors a leg up as the service continues to pare down its troop numbers.

Sailors who participate in a voluntary sea duty program can postpone their mandatory application for Perform to Serve, a program that has involuntarily separated thousands of enlisted sailors in recent years.

The emphasis on adding sea billets continues a process that became public last year, when top Navy officials added 2,200 billets back to ships after conceding that several years of a program known as “optimal manning” had failed. Optimal manning trimmed ship billets and transferred more work to shore support facilities. However, a 2010 report headed by retired Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle found that the policy contributed to situations where “ships cannot maintain an acceptable level of shipboard material readiness, especially corrosion control.”

The voluntary sea duty program, announced this week in a Navy Personnel Command memo, allows sailors currently serving aboard ships to extend their tour up to two years beyond their planned transfer date.

Sailors currently assigned to shore duty can transfer to sea duty for up to 36 months.

Meanwhile, sailors currently assigned to ships can apply for back-to-back sea duty tours; under normal circumstances, sailors on sea duty are offered a shore station for their next tour.

Volunteering for sea duty may effectively help some sailors in danger of losing their jobs remain in the Navy a little longer.

Sailors E-6 and below with up to 14 years of service must apply for Perform to Serve, which culls sailors from the ranks in the midst of what the Navy has often referred to as “unprecedented personnel retention.” Although Navy officials say the program’s intent is to separate underperforming sailors, the plan has been criticized by the rank and file for cutting otherwise competent sailors who made a mistake at some point in their careers.

Sailors in line for Perform to Serve evaluation usually enter the system within 15 months prior to transferring to a new duty station, said Chief Petty Officer Troy Beard, a career counselor at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan. Those who receive sea duty orders under the new program will have their evaluation postponed, he said.

“Normally, they would need (Perform to Serve) approval to negotiate for orders,” Beard said.

The extra time at sea also gives sailors on the cusp of being separated more time to improve their standing, said Rear Adm. Tony Kurta, director of the Navy’s personnel plans and policy division, in a Jan. 31 news release.

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