Since the end of the Cold War, our military forces have increased their operational tempo (optempo), which measures how often servicemembers are deployed away from home. Senior military officers have continued Cold War deployment patterns with a smaller force structure to deter further downsizing. The Navy now maintains half of its fleet under way, while many Marine Corps units are also away from home 50% of the time.
Now that the 1991 "Base Force," the 1993 "Bottom-Up Review," and the 1996 "Quadrennial Defense Review" are over, the optempo game must end. The Navy can cut optempo and save money by reducing steaming days. Deployed ships "steam" (i.e., train at sea) SO days per quarter, while non-deployed ships steam 28 days per quarter. This means that after returning from a six-month deployment, a ship still trains at sea for four months during its year at home. This practice wastes fuel and wears out ships and crews.
The Navy can save millions of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs while improving morale and retention simply by reducing the steaming days for non-deployed ships from 28 to 21 days per quarter. Some shipboard training now done at sea can be done pierside. Some training for pre-deployment workups can occur during transit to overseas deployment areas. In addition, the Navy has spent millions of dollars on ship simulators, which provide unique training opportunities ashore. Steaming 21 days per quarter still will allow non-deployed ships to steam three months at sea during their year at home, while the extra month pierside ultimately will increase readiness.
The Marine Corps also can slow optempo and save money. The Corps normally maintained 6 of its 24 infantry battalions deployed overseas during the 1980s, and continues this pattern today. Two battalions are deployed aboard Navy ships, while four are maintained in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa.
The Marine Corps should slow the infantry battalion rotation cycle so that three (rather than four) battalions are on Okinawa at a given time. This would slow optempo by at least 10% while improving quality of life and the Corps' ability to respond to real world events. The Corps has struggled to send task forces to Haiti, Liberia, Guantanamo Bay, and Central Africa because units were on traditional deployments to the peaceful island of Okinawa. Maintaining one fewer infantry battalion on Okinawa would save millions of dollars each year in overseas support costs, temporary duty pay, and airlift costs. Should tensions in the region rise, the Marines can fly a dozen battalions to Okinawa from Hawaii and California within days.
Reducing the number of Marines on Okinawa from 17,000 to 16,000 will have no effect on the balance of power in the Western Pacific. In fact, it will help secure our valuable alliance with the Japanese. Okinawans voted ten to one last year for a reduction in U.S. forces stationed there. Unless force reductions are forthcoming, the U.S. military could be kicked off the island entirely. Old salts were convinced that the U.S. Navy never would be forced to leave Subic Bay, but the failure to deal with politics led to an order to leave within two years. The Marine Corps must reduce its presence on Okinawa if it wants to retain any bases on that island.
The optempo game was a key component in the post-Cold War force structure battles. As this game enters its tenth year, more and more dedicated servicemen are calling it quits. Cutting optempo is a win-win situation for the naval services. The post-Cold War optempo game must end to relieve stress on people and ships, and to free resources to procure weaponry for the next century.
Carlton Meyer, a former Marine officer, is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.