By Dan Parsons
The Navy’s 2015 budget request cut two of its most high-profile and troubled acquisition programs nearly in half even as the service continues its refocus to the vast Pacific Ocean.
The F-35 joint strike fighter and the littoral combat ship paid heavy prices so the Navy could shoehorn its desire to be a global presence into a bleak fiscal reality.
“We are in a very challenging fiscal environment at the same time that we’re still dealing with a dynamic threat environment,” Rear Adm. William Lescher, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said March 4 during a press conference at the Pentagon.
Still, the budget and accompanying 2014 quadrennial defense review — also released March 4 — both prioritize the Defense Department’s commitment to refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region, where the Navy and Marine Corps will do much of the heavy lifting. To achieve its goals as an international police force in the region, the Navy’s fleet will grow in total number over the next five years even as some major programs were cut in the short term, Lescher said.
“We bought what we could afford,” he said. That list includes dozens fewer F-35s and LCSs.
The Navy requested the purchase of 36 F-35Cs — designed to land on aircraft carriers — which is a 33-jet reduction from the 69 originally planned. LCS, which is the Navy’s newest class of ship, was reduced from 52 ships to 32 and the entire program will be reevaluated before the fiscal year 2016 budget submission.
The Defense Department’s $496 billion budget supports a Navy of 283 ships rising to a total 309 by fiscal year 2019. The fleet now stands at 291 total ships. The Navy’s cut is $148 billion, of which $38.4 billion will go toward procurement, a $2.8 billion reduction from the current fiscal year.
It provides investments in attack submarines, guided missile destroyers, afloat forward staging bases, and maintains a carrier fleet of 11 ships though a carrier could be scuttled if across-the-board sequestration cuts are allowed to take hold beyond fiscal 2015.
The Navy’s budget request includes $5.9 billion for two Virginia-class attack submarines in FY 2015 and $28 billion for two submarines a year through fiscal 2019. The service also requested $2.8 billion next fiscal year and $16 billion over the next five years to acquire two DDG-51 destroyers per year through 2019. The Navy budgeted $1.5 billion in FY 2015 to buy three littoral combat ships for a total of 14 LCS through 2019 at $8.1 billion.
The Defense Department also plans to spend $3.3 billion for eight joint strike fighters – two for the Navy and six for the Marine Corps in fiscal 2015, and $22.9 billion for 105 total aircraft over the next five years. The 2015 budget calls for an overall reduction of 111 aircraft to also include 10 E-2D airborne early warning planes and 10 P-8 Poseidons, Lescher said.
To pay for those ships and aircraft, the Navy had to make some tradeoffs. Eleven Aegis cruisers will be placed in “long-term phased modernization” during which they will be unavailable for deployment, according to the budget document.
Lescher said the plan would save $4 billion over the five-year defense plan and “is not the first step in decreasing the fleet.” They will be overhauled to update technological capabilities and lengthen their lifespans, then returned to the fleet.
The cruisers will be assigned a “special status” with reduced crews during their modernization. Analysis of staffing levels and their operational capabilities should they be needed is ongoing, Lescher said. The ships will begin modernization in fiscal 2015.
“It’s a very well thought out plan,” he said. “We think this is an innovative way to keep these ships in the fleet.”
The reduction in F-35C purchases was based solely on affordability, Lescher said. The decision had nothing to do with ongoing developmental issues like a faulty tailhook design that has kept the jets from properly landing on a carrier. The aircraft is still on track to achieve initial operating capability in fiscal year 2019, he said.
The Navy will also re-examine its littoral combat ship program, according to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. The budget assumes a fleet of 32 LCSs, down from an originally planned 52 vessels. No new contract negotiations beyond 32 LCSs will go forward.
“The Navy will closely examine whether the LCS has the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary, especially in the Asia-Pacific region,” the QDR says. “The Navy will submit alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant.”
The Ohio-class nuclear submarine replacement program, which Lescher said was the Navy’s top acquisition priority is on track for the first ship to be built in 2021.
An 11-carrier fleet and its complement of 10 air wings are fully funded in fiscal year 2015, to include the scheduled midlife refueling overhaul of the USS George Washington next year.
That carrier and its airwing will be deactivated rather than refueled if sequester continues beyond fiscal year 2016. To keep it in the fleet, the Navy would have to find another $6 billion to $7 billion to pay for it over five years, Lescher said.
That decision will be made as part of the 2016 budget submission. Sequestration will also force the service to consider cutting a nuclear submarine, up to three destroyers, some logistics vessels and an afloat forward staging base, the QDR says.
The Marines Corps will remain the nation’s quick-reaction force, especially in the Asia-Pacific region where its presence is set to grow even as cuts to end strength begin to take hold.
That service requested $22.7 billion in fiscal 2015 to pay for a force of 182,700 Marines, including 900 more guards for overseas embassies. The force now stands at nearly 196,000 Marines. If sequestration-level cuts continue through fiscal year 2016 and beyond, the Marine Corps could shrink to 175,000, the QDR says.
The budget also calls for a phased acquisition approach to the Marine Corps languishing amphibious combat vehicle development program. The effort to purchase a new ship-to-shore tracked vehicle has all but died because of cost overruns associated with the Marine’s desire for a troop carrier that incorporates both sufficient armor and high-speed capabilities through the water.
The service’s heavy lift CH-53K helicopter has slipped by one year to save money, Lescher said.
“Fiscal reality is a hard thing,” he said. “The 53K was seen as something we could slide one year. Milestone C is scheduled for third quarter FY16.”
By 2020, at least 60 percent of U.S. naval forces will be deployed to the Asia-Pacific region, the budget and the Quadrennial Defense Review both state. That will encompass an increase in the U.S. naval presence in Japan, more LCSs rotated through Singapore, a greater number of destroyers and amphibious ships permanently stationed in the Pacific, and the deployment of surface vessels such as joint high speed vessels to the region, the QDR says.
The plan also includes $128 million for “military infrastructure” in Guam to bolster its position as a strategic hub in the western Pacific. That sum includes $51 million to establish Marine Air-Ground Task Forces throughout the region.
Those forces will assume a geographically distributed force posture in the Asia-Pacific, which will be increasingly important as U.S. forces are rebalanced to that region, the QDR said.
“DoD’s overarching objective in the region is to sustain a stable security environment and a regional order rooted in economic openness, peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes, free flow of commerce, democratic principles of governance and political freedom,” the documents state.