Capitol Hill Budget Brawls Stretch Navy Resources Thin

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
The Cipher Brief

“If we do a continuing resolution, we are not only not rebuilding our military, we are harming our military,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told his Senate colleagues last Thursday.

Ignoring the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, the Senate did just that, approving a new, three-month continuing fiscal 2018 appropriation resolution that will end December 8. It was part of a package deal signed Friday by President Donald Trump that also extended the national debt limit and included a bill that provides $15.25 billion in disaster relief for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In his Thursday Senate floor speech, McCain recalled in earlier testimony this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis pointed out that “during nine of the past ten years, Congress has enacted 30 separate Continuing Resolutions to fund the Department of Defense, thus inhibiting our readiness and adaptation to new challenges.’’

That’s because, as with earlier such resolutions, this one “prohibits DoD from starting new programs, entering into multi-year contracts, or increasing production rates.” In addition, it reduces the Pentagon base expenditures during the three months by 0.6791 percent.

McCain also said continuing resolutions lead to “uncertain budgets that are consistently late” at a time when threats require the U.S. to continue “to increase the operational tempo for our military despite not having sufficient money to pay for it.” The result, he said, has required “making cuts elsewhere to stay afloat, like in training and maintenance.”

“For evidence of this,” McCain said, “we need look no further than all the headlines about ship collisions and aviation accidents during peacetime training operations—incidents that have tragically taken the lives of dozens of our brave men and women in uniform. The incident involving USS McCain, which killed 10 young sailors, is only the latest example.”

Ironically, that same day, the House Armed Services Subcommittees on Seapower and on Readiness held a joint hearing into “The Underlying Problems Associated with the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain,” two of four Navy ships that have had accidents this year in Far Eastern waters.

The hearing quickly focused on the fact that the destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain, as well as the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam – which last January ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan—were forward-based and home-ported at Yokosuka in a program designed to give them more operational time on station.

However, because the overall size of the fleet has declined, the length of time ships are forward-deployed has gone beyond original planning, with the result that “their material condition is in an unacceptable state,” according to Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Robert Wittman (R-VA).

The USS McCain has been forward-deployed to Japan for over 20 years when the expected time was just 10 years. That time limit was also exceeded by the USS Fitzgerald.

Testifying at that House subcommittee hearing, Admiral Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, said that continuing resolutions add to the forward-deployment problem because they create “budget uncertainties [that] drive uncertainty into schedules [and] drive uncertainty in the maintenance…So the most useful thing we could have out of Congress right now in terms of addressing a lot of our readiness concerns is stability in the budget.”

Another major problem discussed at the House hearing in context of the accidents was “seamanship” and training time when it came to the Japan home-ported ships.

John Pendleton, defense force structure director at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified that eight of 11 forward-based ships in Japan had expired seamanship certifications, which he described as “a problem area.”

Moran testified, “On forward-deployed forces like in Japan, the training is done while you’re at sea operating on deployment. For the most part, there’s not dedicated [training] time.” GAO’s Pendleton added, “We were told that the overseas based ships were so busy that they had to train on the margins, [a] term I’d not heard before. And it was explained to me that meant that they had to squeeze training in when they could.”

Another witness, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, director of Navy Surface Warfare, told the subcommittee, the Afloat Training Groups in Japan that do the training are not fully staffed, because they are “senior enlisted specialist, and the priority goes to putting those specialists first on ships.”

Moran said getting those trainers takes time “because we have to go find the right experience, the right folks that have operated and understand what the challenges are in – in building and attaining certifications.” In addition, he said it requires projecting needs two years ahead and that takes him back to the continuing resolution dilemma “when we can’t predict or project what we’re going to be in two years.”

Moran at one point said frankly, “I have made the assumption for many, many years that our forward-deployed Naval force in Japan was the most proficient, well-trained, most experienced force we had, because they’re operating all the time. It was a wrong assumption, in hindsight.”

The Navy is studying forward-deployment as part of a broad Navy study set in motion by the four accidents.

Meanwhile, the Senate this week is scheduled to take up the long delayed fiscal 2018 Defense Authorization Bill. But its expected passage is just another single legislative step towards clearing the way for the Pentagon to be relieved of another continuing appropriations resolution.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall have the power…to raise and support armies…[and] to provide and maintain a Navy.” Nothing is written down on how well the legislators must do it.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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