Navy struggles to meet demands

Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman gave a blunt assessment Tuesday of the Navy surface fleet’s state of readiness in the face of budget cuts combined with the new defense strategy.

“Not enough people, not enough parts, not enough training, not enough everything.”

Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman gave a blunt assessment Tuesday of the Navy surface fleet’s state of readiness in the face of the indefinite heavy commitment of ships to the Persian Gulf and the new White House strategy calling for emphasis on the Pacific.

“I’ll tell you we’re stretched thin,” Copeman said of the 167 surface ships in the 288-ship Navy. “Op tempos have increased, resources have gone down,” said Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces.

And it’s only going to get worse in the way of funding, with or without sequestration – the threat of massive defense budget cuts if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal on debt and deficit reduction by March, Copeman said in a keynote address to the 25th annual conference of the Surface Navy Association in Crystal City, Va.

“Despite the fact that we’re pretty thinly resourced, we’re doing the job” currently, but “resources are going to drop, they’re going to drop significantly,” Copeman said.

The Navy’s surface ship problem was illustrated Monday when four destroyers – the USS Higgins, Stockdale, Lawrence and Shoup – from the carrier Nimitz Strike Group left West Coast ports for a Pacific deployment without the Nimitz.

The 37-year-old Nimitz was laid up with an “emergent maintenance problem.”. The Nimitz was to have replaced the carrier Eisenhower in the Persian Gulf in the spring to keep a two-carrier presence there, along with the carrier Stennis, against the Iranian threat

The Eisenhower returned to Norfolk, Va., before Christmas to have its flight deck resurfaced, and now will go back to the Gulf in late spring, leaving the Stennis to provide a one-carrier presence until then.

The Stennis itself deployed four months early last August to meet the need for two carriers in the Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain.

As budgets go down, and the missions for Navy ships go up, the problems with maintenance, supply and training will only multiply, Copeman said.

“We have a sightline on what’s wrong out there in the fleet,” Copeman said. “We do a good job of knowing what’s wrong,” given improved databases, Copeman said.

“What we don’t do a good job of is doing something about it,” he said.

Supply of parts and stores is also “trending in the wrong direction,” Copeman said. Ships’ commanders have come to learn that “you have a 50-50 chance of getting the part you ask for,” Copeman said. “We don’t have the resources to buy the parts we know we need.”

The overall message to ships’ commanders was to make do with your ship and “get it in a state where you can fight your ship if you have to,” Copeman said.

The retention of personnel in the new era of limited resources was also a major concern, Copeman said.  “We’re taking away people and training,” Copeman said, and the remaining personnel will leave under the added strain.

“People will start walking,” Copeman said. “They’re going to say – ‘Nope, not going to do it.’”

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.