The American defense budget is under constant scrutiny, and for good reason. With hundreds of billions of dollars being funneled into our armed forces every year, it goes without saying that there are areas that could use a bit of fat-trimming, but continued combat operations in multiple theaters around the globe have begun to wear on the personnel and equipment that makes America’s military so formidable. It isn’t enough just to have a powerful military; you have to maintain it.
Try to imagine our nation’s armed forces like a pistol. Our nation ventures into some pretty rough neighborhoods, and that pistol serves as our primary line of defense. For years, our trusty pistol has kept our enemies at bay. Now, when we bought the pistol, we knew we’d have to use it, so we got the best pistol we could afford at the time, and it’s proven to be reliable, dependable, and just what we need when our lives are on the line—and they have been repeatedly over the past 15 or so years.
Now imagine if we never cleaned it.
No matter how good that pistol was when we bought it, a decade and a half worth of wear and tear leads to issues. Our military, with the largest defense budget in the world, is better equipped than any military force our planet has ever seen…but what was once a shiny new pistol has become a worn-out old peacekeeper, and although it still fires when we need it to, we know it can’t keep this up without a little TLC.
A recent report, first published by Defense News, claims that a whopping two-thirds of the American Navy’s strike fighters are currently sitting on the tarmac, unable to participate in combat operations due to funding constraints preventing crews from providing the necessary repairs or maintenance those jets need to get back into the fight. The Marine Corps, a branch that still relies heavily on the aging Harrier platform, boasts an even smaller percentage of currently combat-capable aircraft.
I reached out to two friends who work in Marine Corps aviation as I prepared to put this article together. One, who recently separated but requested that his name be omitted, served for six years as a Harrier mechanic. According to him, the aircraft he dealt with on a daily basis were decades old and showing their age. Many of them are kept “barely flight capable,” and he said it wasn’t uncommon at all for planes to be down for years on end due to the limited availability of replacement parts.
I got the same story from another staff sergeant who serves as a fixed-wing aircraft crew chief for the Marine Corps’ C-130s. According to him, one unit he served with had a C-130 that was down for his entire first enlistment. He received change of station orders before he ever saw the plane take to the sky.
Navy ships aren’t fairing much better. Although there’s been quite a bit of news as of late about plans to expand our fleet to 350 or more ships, the ones we already have are woefully under-maintained due to a lack of funding. It has become commonplace for the United States to leave submarines out of service for years at a time—some for as many as four years.
“Frankly, your track record in the last five to 10 years has not been very good in terms of delivering those ships back to the fleet on time,” the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, Vice Admiral Tom Moore, told a panel of service members and reporters upon assuming command last September. “The result of that is we’re putting additional stress on the rest of the force, both on the platforms and on the people.”
The high operational tempo and minimal budget available for maintenance and refit has left much of the Navy in a holding pattern, with equipment in dire need of service, but no means by which to get that service completed in a timely manner.
“We had (USS) Boise (SSN-764) this summer that we were going to induct into Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The shipyard said the availability, which would typically take 24 months, was going to take 47 months because it didn’t have the capacity—so we’re talking about a submarine availability taking as long as an aircraft carrier refueling and overhaul,” Moore said at the time.
Navy leaders are now claiming that if funding isn’t somehow found, five more of America’s submarines could have their dive certifications revoked by the end of 2017, pulling them out of the fight and relegating them to waiting in line, potentially for years, before seeing the repairs they need.
As we watch new, top-of-the-line ships like the USS Zumwalt leave port, it might be tempting to think that the American Navy is continuing to expand its seaworthy dominance, but because of our shrinking military budget strangling our order down to only three total Zumwalt-class ships, the Navy found that it couldn’t even afford to purchase ammunition in such small orders.
When the Navy intended to build 32 Zumwalt-class ships equipped with 155-millimeter advanced gun systems designed to fire long-range land-attack projectiles, the cost per round was estimated at approximately $50,000. With only three vessels firing these rounds, the ammunition order was reduced dramatically, causing the cost per round to skyrocket toward nearly a million dollars per shell. In order to make using the Zumwalt economically feasible, the Navy was left with no choice but to convert its primary weapon system to fire the cheaper Excalibur round designed for Army and Marine Corps howitzers.
When people talk about how the Defense Department is already receiving more than enough funding, I have to imagine they haven’t considered the fact that we have weapon systems we can’t afford to shoot.
Although I also get excited to see new ships, airplanes, and even small-arms weapon systems being adopted by our military, I can’t help but wish we’d devote a bit more of our formidable resources to decidedly less sexy operations like maintaining the gear we’ve already got. What’s the point of a fleet of 350 ships if half of them are stuck in dry dock, awaiting service?
As President Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis assess the state of America’s military and plan for the future of warfare, I trust they’ll make refitting and maintaining America’s worn-out old pistol a priority. I just hope their efforts aren’t squashed by those who only see the dollars spent, rather than what they’re spent on.
Image courtesy of Breaking Defense