I have just returned from three weeks both at Norfolk and crossing the Atlantic while teaching aboard a couple U.S. naval vessels. Concern over sequestration, not surprisingly, is looming large among the sailors and marines I met on-board.
Most of the sailors had friends and colleagues on the deferred USS Harry S. Truman deployment, cancelled with only about a day’s notice back in February. Anger at the Navy was palpable, as almost everyone believed that the Pentagon had been using the Truman’s crew to play a political game. There were numerous stories not only about how sailors had let the leases expire on apartments and sold cars and sent children to live with relatives, but also about how many had literally given away the family dog ahead of the expected nine-month deployment. The cost of sequestration isn’t simply human, however.
The vessel I was on had been delayed repeatedly by repairs and was not in top condition. U.S. Marines putting themselves in harm’s way deserve better than open sewage pipes in their restrooms, or dysfunctional drink machines in the mess. Nor should they have to worry about water rationing because of water plant shutdowns, closing the gym, showers, and draining water from the sinks. The impact sequestration will have on the Navy, some senior officers warned in the mess, will be felt most not this year but in the very near future. Deferred maintenance—some ships funded at only 15 percent, if not less—mean effectively that those ships will be lost: the cost of fixing chronic problems will only increase. Worse, however, is the risk that those ships whose operations are funded will be run into the ground without the budget for maintenance to prevent catastrophic failures.
Congressmen posturing as supportive of the Navy are only making matters worse by constraining them. When the Navy seeks to scrap or sell some ships, congressmen afraid of declining ship numbers mandate that the Navy must keep them instead, but do not provide the money for their basic upkeep or function, making the overall strains worse.
North Korea is already testing the United States, and Iran’s leadership is also overconfident. The danger is not that the United States will become embroiled in a proactive war, but rather that our adversaries’ miscalculations could involve us in a reactive one. Let us hope that the commander-in-chief and Congress do not assume that the Navy will be ready or that the United States will always be able to project its power. Aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships are maintenance heavy and take constant investment. At the best of times, perhaps half of them were ready at any time. In five years, I doubt one-quarter of them will be.