The congressional stalemate over defense budgets is having a “toxic effect” on Navy operations, which are progressing at a speed and pace not seen since the peak of the Cold War, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson warned Thursday.
The lack of funding certainty is preventing the Navy from keeping its fleet in good order, the Navy chief added, saying the shortfalls were in part to blame for the service’s deadly 2017 summer in which 20 sailors died in sea accidents. Top Navy officials faced sharp criticism on Capitol Hill over the state of the service.
To date, two American carrier strike groups, two amphibious ready groups and a total of six cruisers and destroyers armed with ballistic missile defense systems are steaming across international waterways, the admiral said in a speech at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Submarine operations are also experiencing an significant uptick with 14 subs currently at sea, which “is a bit of a high point” for the underwater fleet, Adm. Richardson said. That deployment rate, coupled with the surface warships also at sea, represents nearly a third of its roughly 300-vessel fleet forward deployed throughout the waterways and sea lanes that crisscross the globe.
But problems arise when there isn’t the money for up-to-date equipment and maintenance.
“As we increase capacity, as we increase capability, the readiness has to be there,” he said Thursday, noting that “ship maintenance has taken one of the biggest hits” under current budget environment.
“It really starts to have a toxic effect. … A ship that cannot go out because it is not maintained is a ship that does not project naval power,” he added.
The high operational tempo for the Navy, not seen since the dying days of the Cold War, comes as the clock winds down on yet another short-term, stopgap defense budget, passed by Congress to end last month’s three-day government shutdown.
The continuing resolution to finance defense spending and other segments of the federal government is set to expire on Feb. 8.
“I trust Congress will do their job and write the check. … Continuing resolutions are no way to run a military,” told reporters Thursday on the looming deadline.
Adm. Richardson said the uncertainty over whether and when the money will be available poses special problems for the Navy.
“You cannot write the [maintenance] contract if you do not have the funding,” he said. With less ships ready to embark out on operations, the Navy’s comparatively small fleet is grappling to keep place with the demands of “a very dynamic and changing maritime environment.”
The Navy is not the only branch of the military complaining that its missions are being hindered by political infighting in Washington.
“Continuing resolutions are no way to run the military. It’s a lot of uncertainty, it’s wasteful, three weeks at a time, a month at a time, six weeks at a time. It’s wasteful,” Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis met with GOP lawmakers during a congressional retreat in West Virginia, to discuss ways to break the congressional impasse and get a permanent fix to defense spending for the current fiscal year.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, told reporters at the retreat that lawmakers are “very close” to a deal, but could not rule out another government shutdown, insiderdefense.com reported.
Navy Sea Systems Command, the directorate charged with keeping the fleet in shape, has implemented a number of ad hoc measures to boost readiness and maintenance levels in the wake of last summer’s fatal incidents. But those approaches are could begin to falter under the weight of ongoing under budget uncertainty, Adm. Richardson said.
“A system has been developed, maybe not in good ways but in ways to just get business done,” he said Thursday.
Overworked ships pressed into service in the Pacific were a key contributor a slew of incidents last summer.
Seven U.S. sailors aboard the U.S.S. Fitzgerald were killed when the warship collided with Philippine-flagged shipping vessel near the Japanese coast last June. Two months later in August, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer U.S.S. McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, resulting in 10 sailors killed.
Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the former top Navy officer in charge of the sea service’s Pacific combat fleet, last month was forced into early retirement in the wake of the incidents, which prompted a worldwide 48-hour stand down of all Navy operations. The commanders of both the McCain and the Fitzgerald also face charges of negligent homicide and other violations of military law.