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Navy facing 'alarming' deficiencies in combat readiness, lawmaker says

By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 14, 2011

NAPLES, Italy – More than a fifth of Navy ships fell short of combat readiness in the past two years, and fewer than half of the service’s deployed combat aircraft are ready for their mission at any given time.

With an ascendant China on the high seas and a potential $400 billion in Defense Department budget cuts over the next decade, the Navy is facing “glaring deficiencies that are nothing short of alarming,” the ranking member of the House’s Readiness Subcommittee said at a hearing this week.

The Navy’s deployed ships spend nearly 40 percent of their time under way with at least one major equipment or system failure, according to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee, which falls under the House Armed Services Committee.

The Navy’s lack of readiness is troubling, he said.

Forbes, citing the Pentagon’s quarterly defense review submitted to Congress, said the fleet is suffering a nearly 16 percent backlog for aircraft and engines, fewer available spare parts and more than $815 million in unfunded maintenance requirements.

“Our Navy already has insufficient resources to preserve its current fleet,” Forbes said at Tuesday’s hearing. “In many areas, the Navy has not meet their goals and is not prepared even with their current level of funding.”

Even with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, “our Navy’s role in projecting force across the globe will not decrease,” ranking Democrat Madeleine Bordallo (Guam) said at the hearing. “Maintaining our fleet is of the utmost importance.”

While no final decisions have been made by Pentagon or Navy officials about how much the service will trim from its annual budget, The Hill reported this week, citing industry sources, that the Navy “has been told to expect a $10 billion funding cut for 2013.”

The service requested $161.4 billion in baseline funding for 2012, according to The Hill.

Testifying before the committee, Vice Adm. William Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, echoed the refrain of other service leaders after a decade of war: resources have been stretched thin.

Combatant commanders are “relatively unconstrained” in the forces they request, but the Navy has “a limited supply of forces,” Burke said.

“When you have these additional deployments, you sometimes impact the maintenance, or you impact the training, which will impact the maintenance,” he said. “So what we have is one event cascading into another, so we don’t get either of them quite right.”

On the personnel side, an average of 50 ships a year since 2005 have violated one or more Navy or Pentagon standards such as deployment length or dwell time, Burke said, compared with an average of five a year before 2005.

Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, said that 50 percent of surface ships are under way at any given point, and, as ships age, maintenance needs increase.

It’s unclear how the Navy will solve the problem of older ships in light of increased obligations and a more economically austere environment, said Raymond Pritchett, an analyst of naval affairs who blogs for Informationdissemination.net.

Part of the blame for the fleet’s current state can be attributed to the “procurement holiday” of the 1990s and the attempt to run the Navy as a business under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Pritchett said. Commanders were lauded for doing more with less.

The case of the cruiser USS Chosin illustrates the challenges the Navy faces in maintaining aging ships. Now in dry dock in Hawaii, the ship’s maintenance was supposed to cost $35 million, but has jumped to $70 million after inspections.

“The only ships that seem to be making their maintenance windows are carriers and subs,” Pritchett said.

When Forbes asked if the Navy had a plan as to how it would improve the rate of ships failing inspection -- 22 percent of the 285-ship fleet have failed inspection so far in 2011 -- McCoy said the service did not have that question figured out.

“We’re trying to figure out exactly what those key measures of success are going to be and how long it’s going to take to get there,” he said.

Geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ