By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Navy captains from the aviation, surface, submarine and construction communities told Congress May 26 that budget and personnel reductions have restricted their ability to surge forces to meet a crisis and often require them to “cannibalize people as well as parts” to support forward-deployed units.
Capts. Gregory McRae, deputy commander Submarine Squadron Six, and Scott Robertson, commander of the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy, both used the term “cannibalize” to describe the recurring necessity to strip components or to transfer trained personnel from vessels in port to allow other subs or warships to continue on deployment.
Capt. Randy Stearns, commodore of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, said “cannibalization is routine” to provide replacement parts for his legacy F/A-18 Hornets to support the one in four of his squadrons that is considered fully combat ready.
Capt. Paul Odenthal, commander Naval Construction Group Two, said his Seabee units are fairly well equipped because the construction forces have been cut from 21 battalions to 11, but can only meet 80 percent of the combatant commanders’ (CoComs’) requirements, even with activated Reservists, and would have to draw heavily on the Reserves to respond to any crisis.
For the Navy to be fully ready, commander of Fleet Forces Command Adm. Phillip Davidson said, it must be able to “rotate the fleet out on routine deployments,” to “surge” forces in time of crises, and to maintain and modernize the fleet “to ensure it is credible” for any possible future fight.
“If there are not enough resources to do all three at once, we will emphasize readiness for deployment,” Davidson told a joint meeting of the House Armed Services’ seapower and projection forces and readiness subcommittees.
Davidson and the captains detailed how years of constrained budgets, reduced personnel levels, high operational tempos and slowdowns in depot maintenance have left them with no combat ready vessels or squadrons at home stations to respond to a crisis.
Seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said the problem was even broader, because the Navy was only able to meet 56 percent of the CoComs’ requests for aircraft carriers, 54 percent for amphibious ready groups, 42 percent for attack submarines and 39 percent for cruisers and destroyers.
That data shows “we are not currently providing our Navy with the resources needed to do what we’ve asked. At least not without burning out our ships and our planes and our Sailors and undermining our long-term readiness,” Forbes said.
Readiness subcommittee chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., expanded the scope of the problem even more, noting that “every service branch today is suffering from readiness shortfalls.”
Stearns said that because the strike fighter community must put all its spare parts, maintenance and trained personnel into supporting the deploying carrier air wings, “if you wanted to surge more than we have deployed, it would take me six to 12 months to get another wing ready.” Earlier in his career, Steans said, it would take 60 to 90 days to get another air wing ready to deploy.
“As of today. we don’t have that surge capability,” he said.
The strike fighters are short of combat-ready aircraft partly because the maintenance depots are not only trying to keep up with regular overhauls but are struggling to extend the flying hours of the legacy Hornets far beyond the expected service life, Stearns said.
And the shortage of aircraft in the non-deployed squadrons prevents the pilots from getting the flight hours they need to maintain combat proficiency, he added.