Faced with big budget cuts, the Navy made a big choice. It opted in the last few months to preserve most of its multi-year shipbuilding programs — at the expense of ship deployments and what’s called “Operations and Maintenance” (O&M) accounts. They will keep building ships but they will not deploy or operate many of them.
The Navy isn’t scrapping its aircraft carriers, the number-one symbol of American global power. In fact, last June, with the budget storm brewing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly swore the U.S. would remain an 11-carrier Navy. But last week, the Navy took the drastic step of canceling the deployment of the USS Harry Truman, which was scheduled to head for the Middle East; and delaying the years-long refueling of the USS Abraham Lincoln. The fleet was already down one carrier, with the December decommissioning of the USS Enterprise.
Practically everything in the Navy’s $168 billion annual budget is tied up in gigantic ships that are expensive to build, take years to complete and are costly to maintain. Stop those programs, and restarting them is really difficult. But O and M money isn’t committed to those massive programs — things like, say, deployments or ship maintenance. It’s a lot easier to absorb a budget cut by shoveling O&M money into, say, the shipbuilding budget.
The risk is is that the longer it takes to get a permanent resolution for the budget, the less care and attention the existing fleet gets — to the point where deployments get cut in droves; aircraft don’t receive maintenance; and ships sit pier-side rusting.
Delaying the refueling of the Lincoln is a case in point. It’s a short-term cost saver that could translate into a way more expensive proposition down the road.
“Refueling” is almost a misnomer. The heart of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers like the Lincoln are two nuclear reactors that are “refueled” only once during its 50-year lifetime. Moving the nuclear material into the reactors is a painstaking process much more complicated than just filling a gas tank. “Refueling” also includes overhauling the carrier: taking out everything, down to the bulkheads, and installing new equipment. It typically takes three or four years. The Navy has said that the 25-year-old Lincoln is undeployable until it gets the service.
Nuclear refueling overhauls are among the largest and most expensive fleet maintenance procedures. Lincoln’s was planned to cost $3.3 billion. Less dramatic, but equally important, are the more than 20 depot-level maintenance periods for ships on both coasts.
SOURCES – Wired Danger Room