The tragic collision that killed seven American sailors off Japan in recent days is just one the huge challenges facing the U.S. Navy right now. The biggest problem: money. Military leaders and some Republicans say it will take a lot more resources to rebuild the military than the increases recently proposed by the Trump Administration.
Looking at pictures of the damaged destroyer USS Fitzgerald, retired senior officers say it’s most likely that the American ship was to blame for the nighttime collision with a huge container ship in the middle of a busy shipping lane. In these incidents, three factors are always considered: weather, mechanics and human performance. The data is all recorded and this will be an easy determination, say the former officers.
The other issues facing the Navy will not be so easy to resolve.
Nearly two-thirds of the Navy’s F/A 18 strike fighter jets are currently unable to fly, grounded due to repair delays or because they are awaiting spare parts. Elsewhere, the instructors for a whole class of training aircraft called the T-46 are refusing to fly because they say the aircrafts’ oxygen system is poisoning pilots.
And yet the demands on U.S. naval power continue to grow.
Case in point, the campaign against ISIS. Over the weekend, a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22, giving the U.S. military its first air-to-air kill since 1999. The incident came after Syrian government aircraft attacked a group called “The Syrian Democratic Forces,” wounding several of the fighters, who are allies of the U.S.-led coalition to destroy ISIS, according to a press release from the Combined Joint Task Force Operation.
Often described as the backbone of naval aviation, the F/A 18 was designed to have a lifespan of roughly 6,000 flight hours. Today, jets are being stretched to fly between 8,000 and 9,000 hours to fulfill mission expectations as a result of fewer operational aircraft, budget restrictions and delays to the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
More than half of all Navy aircraft are out of service and there is no budget agreement in place to increase defense spending levels. The top brass says its usable planes are being pushed to the limit.
Unable to reach a deal on the budget during the first Obama Administration, Republicans and Democrats agreed on across the board cuts called “Sequestration.” Almost every branch of the military now describes its air fleet as “aging, overworked and undermanned.”
The Navy says in the near term, “there are gaps in training and maintenance that create readiness risks in the event of a major contingency. In the longer term, there are also risks: a dynamic and increasingly dangerous security environment, especially as potential adversaries develop greater military capability, and forces straining to handle multiple simultaneous contingencies.”
The Trump administration is seeking an increase to the base Pentagon budget of about $52 billion, representing a 9.8% increase over the Fiscal Year 2017 request. “The increases would largely go toward funding training, maintenance, replacing munitions, bombs and missiles, used in Iraq and Syria, and paying for thousands of additional soldiers and marines.”
But the sought-after funds represent a $19 billion, or roughly 3%, increase over what former President Obama said his administration would seek for Fiscal Year 2018. That led the request to be met with criticism from defense hawks on Capitol Hill such as Sen John McCain, who say the proposal falls well short of Trump’s promises of massive increases for defense.
The Navy announced in December that it had raised its ship-count goal from 308 to 355, five more than President Trump targeted while on the campaign trail.
One potential solution the Navy is studying to help its resource problems: bringing back moth-balled ships.
Studies are underway to “take a hard look” at putting eight mothballed Oliver Hazard Perry frigates back into service as well as extending the life of existing Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers to help the Navy reach its goal of a 355-ship fleet, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said last week.