After six years of budget cuts, the U.S. Navy is expected to see a funding increase when President Donald Trump’s administration unveils its 2018 budget later this week.
The Navy has put its best foot forward abroad. But in Washington, Navy officials have shared bleak statistics that reveal a damaged force.
During a recent embed aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, VOA saw a fully capable naval force dominating the waterways it roamed while striking Islamic State targets in the Middle East.
“There’s no shortages for us,” Rear Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, the commander for Carrier Strike Group 2, said. “I haven’t seen any readiness shortfalls from this end.”
Aboard the Bush, Whitesell rattled off several examples of the carrier’s well-being, explaining how the crew had loaded plenty of fuel, extra weapons and a steady stream of spare parts for repairs.
But there’s another side to this carrier’s story, one that Navy officials aren’t always comfortable talking about. Prior to the crew’s deployment, the Bush spent about a half-year longer than expected in the shipyard undergoing critical maintenance.
The result — despite the Navy having 10 completed carriers, not a single one was deployed in the Middle East region for about two months until the Bush arrived in the Mediterranean Sea in February.
“We did spend a little more time in the shipyard than we would have preferred,” the aircraft carrier’s commanding officer, Captain Will Pennington, told VOA.
The Navy wants billions in additional funding to help fix its maintenance backlog and to buy new weapons and equipment, and former Pentagon Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer Mike McCord told VOA the military branch is poised to see “some of the biggest gains.”
“I do think it looks like maybe some of the more substantial, and possibly more sustainable, increases are coming their way,” McCord said.
One of the big ticket items the Navy is requesting is about 25 more F/A-18 fighter jets, used aboard the Bush to both strike Islamic State targets and refuel other F18s by attaching a fuel tank on the bottom of the aircraft.
Despite the need for this aircraft in the counter-ISIS fight, officials say nearly two thirds of the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornets can’t fly — grounded for maintenance after taking to the skies for thousands of more hours than they were originally built to fly.
“Our Legacy Hornets, which the Marine Corps and we operate today, are well beyond their design life, let alone their service life,” Admiral William Moran, the Vice Chief of Naval Operation, said in a House Armed Services Committee hearing last month.
The Trump administration’s budget released this week is expected to increase defense spending by $54 billion, with much of that going to the Navy.
Earlier this month, Trump toured the most expensive ship ever built, the aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford, to highlight his commitment to increased military spending. Standing on the deck of the carrier, Trump promised more ships, planes and other equipment.
“We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing — you know what that is? Win! Win,” Trump told sailors.
More money needed in the future
McCord told VOA he agrees that boosting the budget is a good idea, but that it will not improve naval readiness without a long-term financial commitment.
“If you don’t have adequate funding, then having more ships, more sailors with the same budget you had before, or only a slight increase or an unpredictable or unsustainable increase, they’re all chasing the same level of resources, and you’re not necessarily going to be much better off,” McCord said.
He also urged Congress to start passing the defense budgets on time, in order to give service chiefs the opportunity to plan ahead.
When Congress can’t agree on a budget, it often passes continuing resolutions, appropriations bills that set aside money for specific federal government departments, agencies and programs in order to continue normal government operations without disruption until a final budget is passed.
“We spent about a third of our time in the past administration under a continuing resolution. That’s inefficient in and of itself,” McCord added.