Navy would part with fleet, not sailors, if budget cuts are ordered

The Navy would avoid slashing the number of sailors in its ranks if ordered to enact massive budget cuts, and instead would opt to reduce the size of its fleet.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, tapped to become chief of naval operations (CNO), said Thursday that a decade of personnel cuts have cut the size of the sea service’s ranks as low as it can go. 

“We cannot go hollow,” the current vice CNO told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing for the top job.

The service now has about 334,000 active-duty personnel.

Military services and defense firms are bracing for large annual funding reductions now that the post-9/11 spending spree on national security is ending. The White House already has ordered $400 billion in national security cuts through 2023.

Lawmakers and Defense sources said this week the Pentagon is working to cut about $80 billion from its 2013 budget plan.

One Defense insider said Thursday that Pentagon and industry officials expect to take up to a $600 billion budget hit over a decade, a figure lower than proposed in several congressional debt-reduction plans.

For the Navy, the likely incoming CNO made clear he sees no alternative but to meet large budget reduction targets by making changes to the Navy’s force structure, meaning equipment.

“We would have to go to the force structure,” Greenert said.

But the situation will present him and other sea service leaders with what he described as a “conundrum.”

Greenert pledged to not reduce the number of sailors under his charge, but making force structure cuts also gives him pause because, he said, “I’m concerned about the industrial base.”

Military leaders and some defense analysts say because so many U.S. weapon systems are ending their production runs and there are few new programs in the design phase, companies will soon begin losing highly skilled employees — and be unable to recruit new ones.

This so-called industry “atrophy” comes at a precarious time for Pentagon and industry officials, as well as pro-defense lawmakers, because the military is set to receive a smaller piece of the federal budget pie to keep production lines humming and start new development programs.

Meantime, panel ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) “spared” the CNO nominee “my usual rant” about cost overruns on two weapons programs key to future naval plans: the F-35 fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), however, said he believes the LCS fleet will prove cheaper to operate than other U.S. war ships.

Greenert said the Navy has “no alternative” to the F-35, saying if “we fail to bring it home,” the service would need to develop a brand new — and likely costly —“stand-off weapon” that could be delivered by F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets.

But, McCain warned Greenert, lawmakers and American taxpayers are quickly losing patience with the “unsustainable costs” of both programs. About that, McCain said, “I’m deadly serious.”