Congressional Watch

By Bradley Peniston

In autumn, the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned the Joint Chiefs of Staff to demand answers. Led by JCS Chairman General Henry H. Shelton, the chiefs told quite a different story in September than they had presented in February. "The military services are showing increasing signs of serious wear," Shelton said at a remarkable 29 September hearing. The nation's top officer said that non-deployed readiness was declining, that a substantial pay gap existed between uniformed troops and their civilian equivalents, and that a skimpy pension was pushing people to get out of the service. Fixing the problems, he said, would cost an extra $24 billion a year beyond the Pentagon's fiscal year 1999 pool of roughly $270 billion.

The senators seethed.

Senator John C. McCain (R-AZ) called the chiefs' about-face "Orwellian." Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) faulted the brass for not standing up for their troops. "You have a responsibility at the top of the chain of command for the people who work for you," he said. At a minimum, the chiefs showed "a lack of zealous representation," Santorum said.

In their defense, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson and the rest of the chiefs of staff said that the readiness problems had worsened since they testified seven months previously. A high operating tempo—for the Navy, the highest since 1991's Gulf War—and a booming economy had worn down equipment and lured troops away from the military, Johnson told the senators.

The CNO was even bleaker in an October letter to McCain, who had demanded detailed readiness reports from the service chiefs. Johnson's letter vividly described leaking roofs and empty cruise missile silos—in short, declining readiness across the non-deployed Navy.

This jibed better with the accounts feeding into the Republican-led Congress. "We're getting more and more reports of shortages of supplies and shortages of people," said Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), Chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "We may be tolling the bell on a hollow Navy."

By the time the budget-hearing marathon began anew in February 1999, Johnson was coming to Capitol Hill with a new message for lawmakers: there were parts of the fleet that needed fixing, pronto.

Pay Reform

Chief among Johnson's fixes was the "pay triad." "In the short term, people are my No. 1 priority," the CNO told the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee in March 1999. The White House's proposed $83.5 billion fiscal 2000 budget proposal included a number of increases in benefits. First, sailors and other troops would get a 4.4% pay raise. Second, the proposal contained targeted raises of up to 5.5% for midlevel and senior service members, and reforms aimed at rewarding quick promotion rather than longevity. Third, the proposal largely would abandon the unpopular Redux retirement plan in favor of one that more closely resembled the old half-pay-after-20-years pension.

The administration's pay proposal—which was included after the chiefs called for it in the September hearing—was quickly trumped by a Senate bill that promised to hike pay 6.5% and to completely sweep away the decade-old Redux system. In February 1999, the senators also threw in a hefty upgrade to the Montgomery GI Bill, allowing service members to use their educational benefits more flexibly. (By March, Stevens was having second thoughts. "We took $3 billion from the readiness account to pay for education," he said. "In retrospect now, I seriously question that.")

No matter who got the credit for boosting troops' paychecks, Johnson told the senators that pay reform would provide a "fundamental" bulwark to shore up recruitment and retention. Both had sagged badly in 1998. By autumn, the Navy was short nearly 22,000 sailors for its 370,000 billets. Recruiting shortfalls—the first since 1972—hurt as well.

Indeed, Navy officials decided to increase the percentage of high-school dropouts at boot camp, raising their numbers to 10%, but requiring a work history and character references. "I'm very disappointed that the Navy had to lower its standards in recruitment, and I hope that's temporary," Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) told new Navy Secretary Richard Danzig at a March 1999 hearing.

"I do not hope it will be temporary," Danzig responded. Properly screened diploma-less recruits actually were scoring higher on entrance exams than the low-scoring graduates whom they replaced, he said.

Danzig also pushed several new or modified officer-retention bonuses that would pay thousands of dollars to people willing to stay Navy through a department head tour. If a new surface warfare officer bonus program would cost $50,000 for each of the 257 department head students a year, it was money extremely well spent, Danzig said.

But as the CNO told lawmakers, money was not everything. Operating tempo was higher than ever, hiked by the Navy's heaviest Persian Gulf schedule since Operation Desert Storm. And while deployed optempo was "sustainable for now," the non-deployed load was "clearly too high," he said.

"It needs to be fixed, now," Johnson said, who took significant steps toward lightening the workload with sweeping inspection reductions in September.

Shipbuilding

If people were the CNO's immediate concern, then ships and aircraft were his long-term worry. Johnson declared that 305 ships were absolutely the smallest the fleet could go safely, a number that not-quite-coincidentally reflected the number it was likely to hit by 2005. But the strong economy that was blamed partially for depopulating existing ships also provided the wherewithal to start building a few new ones. The year's unexpectedly low inflation and unexpectedly high tax revenue—combined with the alarms raised over the shrinking fleet—helped the Navy add one ship annually to its five-year plan.

Last year's plan for fiscal 2000 proposed to build three Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided missile destroyers and two San Antonio (LPD-17)-class amphibious transport dock ships. This year's proposal, totaling $5.6 billion, also includes a T-ADC(X) cargo vessel—bringing total construction to six hulls. The next four years include eight ships per year, buoyed from seven by the addition of one Virginia -class submarine, two more cargo ships, a joint command center ship, and an amphibious assault ship. In 2005, plans call for three extra vessels—a command ship, an amphibious assault ship, and an extra DD-21 Land Attack Destroyer—to bring the total to nine, enough to sustain a 305-ship fleet.

The recent elevation of Senator John Warner (R-VA) from Seapower Subcommittee head to the leadership of the Armed Service committee augured well for future shipbuilding plans, congressional observers noted. Naval Station Norfolk and Newport News Shipbuilding both occupy Virginia real estate.

Aviation

On the aviation front, most of the fierce battles were subsiding. With one high-profile exception, members of Congress seemed won over by the F/A-18 Super Hornet. A slightly larger version of the multi-mission Hornet strike fighter, the "super" version was conceived in 1991 as a relatively inexpensive bridge between today's aircraft and tomorrow's.

In 1998, the Super Hornet emerged unscathed from the flap over "wing drop," a tendency to roll a bit when making climbing turns at dogfighting speeds. Even a second set of flight tests that revealed reportedly more than two dozen "deficiencies"—the Navy's word—merely provoked a few raised congressional eyebrows. Instead, lawmakers seemed ready to accept the testimony of program officials, who praised the aircraft's payload, range, survivability, ability to land with unused ordnance, and space for yet-to-be-developed avionics-what one defender called "the Super Hornet mantra."

In March 1999, Danzig told the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee that the program was on time, on budget, and under weight. Furthermore, he said, the plane had flown acceptably despite its deficiencies. "The performance of the aircraft in that test is excellent," he said.

As the Super Hornet team prepared for the plane's final exam—the summertime operational evaluation that would determine its suitability for fleet service—top brass urged Congress to put down payments on the next six years' production of Super Hornets. Buying in bulk would reap "220 planes for the cost of 200" and save around $700 million, Rear Admiral John Nathman, Director Air Warfare Division, told the House Armed Services Committee in March 1999. The total amount to be spent on Super Hornets in fiscal 2000 was $2.8 billion.

The air warfare chief left unspoken one point: Navy budgeteers already had written these "savings" into future spending plans. If Congress disallows the multiyear plan, nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars will come out of someone's hide. Nevertheless, most lawmakers seemed amenable to the proposal. "The F-18 multi-year procurement appears prudent," said Representative Owen Pickett (R-VA). In February 1999, the Navy ordered its third small batch of aircraft, bringing the total on order to 62 for a cost of roughly $6 billion.

One senator, however, vowed to bring the production lines to a halt. In floor speeches and letters, Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) argued that the Super Hornet was not "the most cost-effective approach to modernizing the Navy's tactical aircraft fleet." It was not smart, Feingold said, to spend some $54 million apiece for F/A-18E/Fs if they were not twice as good as the $26 million F/A-18C/Ds.

In a November 1998 letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen, Feingold asked that no more money be spent on the Super Hornet until the Secretary's Inspector General certified that the new plane outperformed the older model in a wide spectrum of maneuvers.

In December, the Navy's Assistant Secretary for Acquisitions appointed a three-person panel to study the program. It was led by a Boeing lobbyist who "recused" himself from his industry job three days before joining the panel. In a letter to Cohen, Feingold flayed this cozy arrangement. "Given the history of flawed information, dating to the withholding of information on the wing drop problem prior to the Lot I production decision, I was not surprised, in the least, that the `independent' advisors gave the program 'positive reviews,"' he wrote in February.

Feingold asked for a declassified report on the 1998 flight tests. Navy officials have declined to produce such a document for Feingold or for reporters, although Danzig told the seapower senators that he saw no reason why there could not be one. At press time, Feingold's bill to kill the program was on the floor of the Senate. It had three cosponsors but was not expected to pass.

Submarines

Although the Navy's submariners were beginning to raise their own alarms about the shrinking of the submarine fleet, there was little public discussion on the Hill about a force whose numerical decline showed no sign of slowing as it prepared to pass through the Quadrennial Defense Review -mandated target of 50 boats after the turn of the century.

In March 1999, Danzig told Congress that the Navy needed to build more submarines—one or two more per year. But he seemed content to wait for the development of the Virginia -class subs (slated to be cheaper than the Seawolf [SSN-21]-class, and named against convention for Warner's home state) before bumping up production. "I think we're in the right position with respect to the present," Danzig said.

There was a trickle of congressional interest in turning four Trident ballistic missile submarines into conventional Tomahawk cruise missile batteries or extra-large SEAL delivery vessels. Four of the Ohio (SSBN-726)-class boats must be removed from nuclear-deterrent duty if the Russian Duma ever ratifies the START II arms-reduction treaty.

Missile Defense

Meanwhile, interest was surging around the Navy's efforts to develop a theater-wide anti-missile defense system. In a series of recent tests, the Navy demonstrated the potential of Aegisequipped warships to throw a cordon of protection across an entire theater by 2007.

The lawmakers' interest was not merely for the safety of troops, but for the possibility of forging a replacement for the long-abandoned "Star Wars" missile defense: a shield for the continental United States against missile strikes from rogue nations. In March 1999, both House and Senate passed overwhelmingly laws—vague in detail but pointed in tone—commanding the Pentagon to develop a national missile defense quickly. As the Army's Theater High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system failed test after test in 1998, Pentagon handicappers began to give the edge to the Navy.

Obviously enthusiastic, Johnson and Danzig danced carefully around the topic. "From my viewpoint, there has been a recognition that the Navy program represents value to the nation," the Secretary told a group of senators.

Still, they resisted invitations to rush the project along. Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) asked whether $617 million, the administration's planned investment in the program's development, would be sufficient.

"That will keep us on our aggressive test schedule," Johnson responded. "We need to field this system as fast as we can sanely do it."

That was not fast enough for Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK). "Waiting until 2010 for NMD [national missile defense] is absolutely unacceptable," the former bomber pilot said.

Danzig stood his ground, described briefly the technical challenges of adapting the Aegis system to track ICBMs, and invited Stevens to reconsider the Army's THAAD. "If you want NMD faster, you may be driven to a land-based system," he said.

Base Closings

Last year, Navy and other military officials raised a clamor to close more excess military facilities. In January 1999, the White House requested two more rounds of closings to add to the 97 bases already slated to disappear. Lawmakers are loath to discuss the idea, especially after Clinton's political meddling in the last base closing process obviated its entire purpose. Besides, the defense budget is rising again, and there appears to be no chance for more closings this year.

In one of Warner's first hearings as Armed Services Committee chair, the Virginia Senator cut JCS Chief Shelton off in midsentence when the Army General brought the topic up, Navy Times staff writer Rick Maze wrote about a 5 January 1999 hearing.

Representative Floyd Spence (R-SC), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would consider further base closings only after all the selected bases are closed and the costs and benefits weighed, which might mean three to five years, Maze reported.

A Sea Change

Navy officialdom's new, less-chipper approach was reflected by the slick briefing books produced annually for congressional consumption. The language in the February 1998 edition was fairly standard, a recitation of can-do statistics with rarely a hint of roiling waters.

"We have examined operations and support shortfalls that in past years dictated migration from investment accounts," the introduction runs. "As a result, we have dedicated the resources needed to maintain high levels of readiness and sustainability."

This year's edition was different. "Recent drops in non-deployed readiness, leading to steeper and later recoveries to meet succeeding deployments, are reflective of developing problems in forces that can no longer be overlooked or managed around," its introduction reads. The update section on aircraft optempo is almost wry. The 1998 edition reads: "Fleet Readiness Squadrons operations are budgeted at 100% of the requirement to enable pilots to complete the training syllabus." But the 1999 edition explains that, "Consistent with recent execution experience, Fleet Readiness Squadrons operations are budgeted at 90% of the requirement . ..."

These briefing books, which accompanied the presentation of the President's defense budget in February 1999, are one of the opening flourishes in the annual budget dance that ends (usually) in September amid a passel of bills passed just before (or after) the fiscal year ends. With months to go, the Capitol Hill climate seemed fecund ground for the Navy's fiscal 2000 budget seeds: there was a handy stream of new tax revenues and danger in the air.

One Navy officer predicted congressional approval of several personnel issues in the coming months. Still, there was hard work ahead. "We're getting everything we want, but if we don't turn this around, they're not going to give us any more," he said.

Bradley Peniston is a staff writer for The Navy Times .

 

Mr. Peniston is managing editor of Defense News

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