Navy dodges furlough bullet, secures waiver for shipbuilders

Service shipbuilders were part of the thousands of Department of Defense employees granted furlough waivers by Pentagon leaders on Tuesday. 

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Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelCreating a future for vets in DC Republicans back Clinton, but will she put them in Pentagon? There's still time for another third-party option MORE announced the waivers, along with a plan to reduce the number of furlough days from 14 to 11, during a Pentagon town hall meeting in Northern Virginia. 

“We got to a point where we couldn’t responsibly go any deeper into cutting without jeopardizing core missions,” Hagel said regarding the furlough decision. 

“I can’t run this institution into the ditch," he added. 

The department's decision to fence off the Navy's civilian shipbuilding corps drew praise from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

"This announcement gives our shipyard employees the financial certainty they deserve and allows the shipyards to avoid furloughs that would have resulted in costly delays in ship and submarine maintenance," Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenate rivals gear up for debates WATCH LIVE: Warren campaigns for Clinton in NH Green group endorses in key Senate races MORE (R-N.H.) and Jeanne Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenDems call for better birth control access for female troops GOP puts shutdown squeeze play on Dems Senators seek to boost women in international forces MORE (D-N.H.) said in a joint statement. 

New Hampshire is home to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the service's main maintenance dock for it's fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, including the Los Angeles-class and next-generation Virginia-class boats. 

However, Rep. Rob WittmanRob WittmanVirginia governor contenders ready for battle House GOP defense policy bill conferees named GOP questions Obama's Afghanistan troop withdrawal MORE (R-Va.), whose district includes the Navy's shipyards in Newport News, slammed the White House for setting the stage for cuts to the defense workforce. 

"I am extremely disappointed the [Obama] administration found no other option over furloughs when they had the flexibility to make other choices," Wittman said Tuesday. 

Even with the Navy exemptions, "furloughs are just one of the effects of compounding budget cuts on our nation’s defense and military readiness," he added. 

For their part, keeping the sea service's shipbuilding base intact was a decision designed to maintain military readiness, according to a senior defense official. 

“We made a decision that it was too serious of an adverse effect” to furlough shipbuilders,  the official told reporters at the Pentagon. 

"We’re talking about [ship] overhauls last months, sometime more than a year," the official added. "They are planned well in advance [and] had we delayed them we would have had very little ability to make it up." 

That possible delay was the crux of the Navy's argument to the Senate defense committee to stave off furloughs to the service's shipbuilders and maintainers. 

The Navy is in the early stages of an ambitious shipbuilding program that will see the service field a 300-ship fleet within the next decade. 

However, those plans could change for the worse if the Navy does not have enough engineers, welders and other positions critical to building that new fleet in place, service acquisition chief Sean Stackley told lawmakers last Wednesday. 

If the Navy cannot deliver on that 300-ship goal, due to a lack of manpower at the service's shipyards, it will not be able to carry out the Pentagon's maritime-heavy national security strategy, Stackley told members of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee at the time.