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Sequestration: America’s Great Harbor

For the Athenians, the Great Harbor of Syracuse was anything but. A monument to their tactical bottle-necking of the “world’s” most powerful navy, the Great Harbor symbolizes the cost of trading mobility for convenience. The five carriers lined up like dominoes in Norfolk are reminiscent of that inflexibility, serving as a greater metaphor for constraints the fiscal crisis may impose on the US Navy worldwide.

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed after the enemy has finished exterminating your entire naval task force and running you to ground in a quarry where you are executed or sold off as spoils of war.” -General Patton

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed after the enemy has finished exterminating your entire naval task force and running you to ground in a quarry where you are executed or sold off as spoils of war.”
-General Patton

During the siege of Syracuse, the Athenian expedition anchored its naval task force inside the protected Great Harbor of Syracuse. Maintaining such a large force in a single place and at anchor decreased the price of manning, and control. The single entrance of the harbor and its copious defenses against wind and wave simplified the maintenance and logistics. The convenience came at heavy cost. The great advantage of their number was lessened by a lack of mobility. Infrequent patrols allowed for the deployment of navigational hazards and blockade runners by the enemy. Superficially low-cost reaction lost to the proactivity of the Syracusan enemy. The harbor’s single entrance turned into a nightmare scenario as the massive fleet was locked into the harbor by a chain of ships strung across the entrance. The expedition of the mightiest naval power in the world died in a Sicilian quarry without a single ship remaining.

One stone? Don’t worry, we’re way past two birds.

One stone? Don’t worry, we’re way past two birds.

America’s Great Harbor is not in a foreign land, but up Thimble Shoals channel and through the gap in the Hampton Roads beltway. Five carriers, the world’s most powerful collection of conventional naval power in one location, sit idle at harbor, one beside the other. The United States maintains a massive naval center of gravity within a single chokepoint that could be plugged at a moment’s notice before a crisis. The concentration not only lends itself to easy containment, but simplifies the problem for espionage and terrorism. The fiscal noose tightening around the navy’s neck is creating a prime target that goes against every lesson we’ve learned from Pearl Harbor to Yemen.

America’s Great Harbor is a vicarious manifestation of a more terrifying fleet-wide atrophy. Sequestration will force the navy into a fiscal Great Harbor. A sample of the Navy’s potential pain includes: 55% decrease in Middle Eastern operational flights, 100% cut in South American deployments, 100% cut in non-BMD Mediterranean deployments, 100% cut in training exercises, 100% cut in non-deployed operations unassociated with pre-deployment workups, and a slew of major cuts to general training. Not only does this seriously hamper the navy’s ability to conduct deterrence, detection, and presence, but it undermines an organization only just recovering from a previously ruined training regime. Despite a growing trend of worries about fleet maintenance, a half year of a/c maintenance and 23 ship availabilities will be cancelled. The snowballing impact on already suffering training and maintenance will further exacerbate that diminishing return on size and quality created by the fiscal Great Harbor. Nations like China and Iran continue to make great strides forward in countering a force that will recede in reach, proficiency, and awareness. The mighty US Navy is forced to sit at anchor while the forces arrayed against her build a wall across the harbor mouth.

What directionless security assistance program? All I see is dancing kids!

What directionless security assistance program? All I see is dancing kids!

Military leadership has done a poor to terrible job advocating the true cost of defense cuts. A series of actions by brass has undermined their credibility and covered up the problem. The blinders-on advocation for teetering programs like LCS and the F-35 have undermined the trust that military leadership either needs or can handle money for project development. The navy personnel cuts were pushed hard for by leadership, and when the navy grossly overshot its target, the alarms were much quieter than the advocation; the ensuing problems were left unadvertised. In general, military-wide leadership uses public affairs not as a way to inform, but as a method to keep too positive a spin in a misguided attempt to keep the public faith. That public faith has removed vital necessary support in a time when the military is rife with problems that absolutely require funding. The PAO white-wash helps under-achieving programs and leadership get passed over by the critical eye. Where Athenian leaders were frank with their supporters at home, stubbornness and inappropriate positivity have undercut military leadership’s ability break loose from the fiscal harbor.

China’s sequestration mostly involves disposing of excess DF-21D’s into carrier-shaped holes in the desert.

China’s sequestration mostly involves disposing of excess DF-21D’s into carrier-shaped holes in the desert.

Those who dismiss the hazard of sequestration are wrong in the extreme. When I was an NROTC midshipman, I remember a map on the wall of the supply building: a 1988 chart of all US Navy bases around the world. Today’s relative paucity of reach leads some to believe that surviving one scaling back shows inoculation against another. However, the law of diminishing returns has a dangerous inverse. Each progressive cut becomes ever more damaging. The United States Navy and sequestration apologists must realize what dangerous waters the US Navy is being forced to anchor in. The question is, how long can the navy safely stay in the Great Harbor before her enemies get the best of her?

Posted by on February 15, 2013.


Categories: Navy

  • robert_k

    Winslow Wheeler (30 years + of experience on the Hill and GAO) sheds some light on this issue at FP:

    “Put simply, the chiefs and their ostensible civilian masters plan to implement the cuts mandated by law in the most destructive, negative way possible, which has the convenient effect — forthem — of pushing Congress and the White House to cough up more money…

    And — not coincidentally I suspect –after all the cutting is done as planned, the chiefs will find themselves with even more money than they requested for some of their favorite hardware items. After the sequester has taken a cut out of the Pentagon’s (separate and legally distinct) procurement account, the Air Force funding for aircraft will increase by $829 million; Navy shipbuilding will have $155 million more than requested for 2013 waiting to be spent, and the weapons and tracked combat vehicles account in the Army budget will have $404 million too much.

    Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Cater put the cherry on top of this pile of absurdity when he testified that, when he was offered the flexibility to cut
    where he deemed appropriate (rather than the across-the-board cuts mandated by Congress), he actually declined.

    What we have here is the mother of all Washington Monument budget drills: A classic Beltway gambit where agencies warn that any budget cuts whatsoever will force them to end their core mission, rather than cut out the fat. (The head of the National Park Service was fabled to testify that any cuts in his agency budget would force him to close the highly popular Washington Monument to the public.)”

    • Guest

      How does that even work? I don’t have more money to do all these things when I spent last November without any money to buy consumables with. Even if this were true, we don’t have the training facilities or programs to support what we have now, we’re understaffed, and bleeding what money we do have into bad projects. We are already in FY13 and the money isn’t here.

    • The government IS cutting, and to think defense is necessarily going to be saved at the last minute is folly. It’s the same hopeful thinking that said we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. Even if this money were to magically appear, hardware doesn’t mean much when we don’t have the training facilities or programs to support what we have now, we’re understaffed, and bleeding what money we do have into bad projects. 155 million for shipbuilding isn’t even enough to afford a single LCS.

      To add, the DoD hasn’t squirmed as much, since under Secretary Gates we ushered in the first wave of projected cuts at a tune of 500 billion. Those were real and no one played chicken with them. This is the second wave, and it isn’t uncharitable to say another 500 billion is excessive, especially when the Navy accidently overshot its draw-down.

      • robert_k

        I’m not sure what happened to “guest” post but here is my reply.

        Since you are already feeling some pain, you must be in a fleet unit or ech 3 or 4 command. Cuts/wedges flow down hill disproportionally and often times top levels of bureaucracy are spared. Check out the 2010 Defense Business Board Study on overhead costs. None of the recommendations to trim the fat of overhead have been acted upon yet we are having a discussion about getting rid of ships, planes and Marines.

        Meanwhile, while you were under-resourced in the fleet, OSD and the Joint Staff were expanding. As former USD Flournoy recently stated , “First [to reduce defense spending], eliminate unnecessary overhead in the Pentagon, defense agencies and headquarters staffs. Since 2001, these have grown like weeds. Over the past decade, the number of DOD civilians increased by more than 100,000, to roughly 778,000 in 2010, while the number of contractors also ballooned.”

        And when top HQ units grow, they create work for all subordinate units – often work that adds no value or is even counter-productive. Take a look at acquisition reform – more people, more processes/oversight (oversight of oversight) and the end result is the same – except more costly.

        Then consider the tooth to tail problem. Count the number of AC, personnel and weapons in fleet aviation units. Since 1990 they have declined considerably. During this period of decline, the total overhead to support naval aviation has grown. This can be seen across all mission areas.

        It’s great to see the JOPA engaging on this issue but DoD could do a lot to alleviate the pain everyone is fearing at the moment. Some think that a drastic measure like sequestration – although stupid – is the only way to knock the fat out of the system.

      • I agree the top is heavy, but the question becomes:
        A.) Is it 500 billion heavy or just misdirected? From strategy to tactics, we should have a robust body of thinkers and developers. From drone warfare to 3D printing, the NWDC shouldn’t be the only tip of the spear. ISIC’s should be using their authority to test and experiment as well. The fact that someone is mis-using the resources to bother the low-end about DAPA and standardization of plaques doesn’t mean those resources aren’t in critical need elsewhere. If we froze costs, a coordinated SecDef and SecNav could force personnel migrations to those other assets.

        B.) Are those civilians necessarily bad? Civilians seem to be a bit more… liberated, in some cases. Unless we’re willing to deputize ourselves again with responsibility for independent decision making rather than death by instruction, we need civilians to make the common sense exceptions that O-leadership is unwilling to make on their own. The Post Office is a great example. Yes, an entire floor of their headquarters is dedicated to contractors and consultants… but do we think the people they’d be replaced by would be better?

        C.) Do we have military personnel to replace the civilians? I’ve been to some schools where the military presence is a formality, the folks in uniform wholly unprepared to train and just there to get a master-trainer credit or claim they were an “instructor” or “expert”. We force folks to generalize in the military, and unless we have a full-blown shift in the way we do business, it would be inappropriate to put military personnel in these schools unless we were willing to specifically seek out and pull the very best out of the fleet. Even then, schoolhouses need to be run by specialists.

        This problem isn’t going to be solved with a meat cleaver, but by shifting in fresh perspectives and personnel who are unburdened by a requirement to follow convention. That involves time and cultivation/attention from the top. The concentration now is on cost, not quality. If we concentrate on the latter first, the former will come.

      • robert_k

        A. As a planning factor 1K = $1B so you can see the cost of 100K extra personnel – many will argue that
        the growth was due to OIF/OEF (not true). So as they cease, we should expect to see a commensurate amount of reduction – but we aren’t. The cuts are coming from military capabilities because those are easy. As far as the rest, you are right but it is a leadership decision that isn’t happening – both within DoD and on the Hill – which is the point of Wheeler’s article – backed up with a lot of data (the CRS report is worth reading).
        Bureaucracies by nature are designed to resist change.

        B. It not a matter of good or bad but rather a decision to stop performing work that isn’t necessary. Take JCIDS – eliminate the entire process and there would be a significant savings in military/civilian personnel, contractor support, unnecessary reports and studies and an unnecessary burden to the acquisition system.

        C. No. We currently spend $54B/y (FY-10) on military personnel doing commercial work. A slight adjustment
        within the navy – could get you $2-5 B per year – if flying hours are getting cut, that savings could be useful for maintaining readiness. Again this is an easy policy decision that no one wants to make. (As a side note, in 2010, I met an AF Col who worked continuously in the pentagon since 1994 – at 30% more compensation than his civilian counterparts and eligible for a nice retirement – will probably join the VFW and talk about how hard things were while he was in the sh!t. This in not an isolated incident.)

        I’m not a fan of the meat cleaver approach either but how else do you force any bureaucracy to change? Do you think a bureaucracy as large as the DoD or DON will significantly reform itself? As you mentioned, Gates tried his best but accomplished very little – while efficiencies were identified they were not implemented – projected cost savings resulted in wedges that were just passed along to lower echelons. In 1982, the CJCS at the time had to run to Congress and admit he tried his best but could not reform the system without outside help. Congress is so broken now, they can offer little support. .

        Whether sequestration occurs or not open debate about these type of issues needs to take place. Thanks!

      • I think my problem is I think the solution to every issue is a Zumwalt to man up and smash things. I absolutely abhor changes to culture made by instruction, as that instruction often seems to be the very thing that has been used to destroy the best parts of the can-do mission-oriented spirit that would save us from this mess.

      • And thanks for the food for thought! It’s instructive.

    • Scott Cheney-Peters

      I read Winslow’s piece and was surprised that he seems to fail to understand how little control the Pentagon actually has over the budget right now. Due to the CR most of the money is locked into specific budget accounts with little reprogramming authority. Want to cut two ships instead of one to move some savings to operational accounts? Tough. And then of course there’s the fact that it’s Congress’ job, one they exercise, to alter budget submissions, which has the effect at times of decisions made for political rather than strategic (I know, not mutually exclusive) reasons. Thus the hardware Services often don’t want.

      • M Yates

        You need to reread the next to the last paragraph. The DoD doesn’t want the power to make intelligent cuts. My guess as to the reason is that they a combination of the entrenched bureaucracy and congressional alliances would guarantees angering a few instead of, in across the board cuts, no one is to blame. Pretty much everyone is a coward!

      • I’d imagine the military doesn’t want the power to make cuts, because it would give credence to the claim that “these are the cuts the military wants.” This would be like the presidential debates when POTUS claimed the military “didn’t want 2 trillion dollars.” They were told not to ask for it. Why give political cover to a bad idea?


    Ha, sequestration is only a disaster because the service secretaries and chiefs want it to be. Watch some hearings on TV some time and you will see the active duty force cuts and pain for the lower ranks and lower echelon commands being proposed and argued for by the secretaries and chiefs while they spend all their political capital arguing for gross cost overruns in programs to be covered.

    Unfortunately, present and former flag and general officers are the fighting forces’ worst enemies. It takes an involved and concerned legislature and executive branch to put down the service leaders’ constant pounding to cut personnel programs and billets in order to ensure weapons programs that are over budget, behind schedule, and not meeting key performance parameters keep all their money.

    Sequestration is not the problem. Lack of leadership at the top of the chain of command for each service is.

    How to fix it? Here are some ideas. First, no program cost overruns. Screw up the bid and swallow the costs. Second, no drawing a retirement check and working for the defense industry. Third, begin attrition at the top of the chain instead of the bottom. As GOFOs retire, no replacements until all services are down to some small number each. Say 50, with no exceptions.

    Why attack there when there are so many problems to attack? Because those are things that can be done directly by legislators and the executive branch. Asking for any military reform that requires action by the very people who need to be reformed is folly. They simply won’t do it. The reform needs to happen right at the point of contact between the top civilian leadership and the top military leadership. Go even one level down and you’ll start to see shenanigans.

    Sequestration is not the problem, rather it has served to expose the leadership problem within all the services at the very top. Civilian leaders should take charge and start reforming the top level of the military hierarchy so that the fleet and forces in the field can be manned, trained, and equipped.

    The fleet is critically short of parts and people. The tip of the spear is often a raggedy-ass klunker held together with speed tape and bailing wire, operated by the exhausted, maintained by 90% rating fit of 80% NMP of 75% BA of the people who are supposed to be doing it. Oh, and none of them have been to school for the gear because PERS won’t pay. Service leaders starve the operating forces of money, people, and parts to “show the pain” while enjoying personal perks and protecting budgets of under performing programs that are behind schedule and over budget. Bravo.

    • M Yates

      Concur with the exception that there is not the division between the civilian and senior military you imply. The senior civilian leadership is as entrenched and the Flag Officers and with a voting constituency to please, just as spineless.

      • Don’t forget, our promotion boards consist of our own. If spinelessness is a problem, it’s something the community created.

    • There is not $500 billion in overages. The feel-good cutting of some overly process-oriented admirals won’t save our services. This is not to say it’s not a bad idea to break the umbilicals of those who will walk out into brand new jobs with equally rich retirement plans. At the very most, the budget should be frozen, forcing service chiefs to properly allocate. All those staffers tracking trackers tracking trackers should be working on strategy, finding best practices, running schoolhouses, or actually follow up with their ships BEFORE that one time they need a data-point that is keeping them from going home.

      And unless you can find civilian leadership that is willing to start pulling out some Zumwalts… looking to the current locked legislature isn’t going to get any answers.

  • Great Harbor is a good start. -a little surprised at no mention of more recent history like Pearl Harbor and what the outcome of WWII might have been had the flat-tops been in port. It’s certainly important to employ Naval weapon systems that offer the greatest economy of force. As I recall, the Chinese gave us very recent lesson (2006) on that subject when they stalked the Kitty Hawk and surfaced their Song-class submarine within weapons range. It’s probably safe to assume the operating cost of that Song class sub is quite modest compared to a U.S. aircraft carrier like the Kitty Hawk. I wonder how many U.S. subs we can keep operating for the cost it takes to keep a carrier operating?

  • Hmm…that pic above of the carriers all side by side and so close together doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside…I realize the pic was to emphasize that the cuts are occurring in the wrong places but isn’t that pic kind of dangerous to post?

    So, what’s the pain to the taxpayer to have separate docking facilities protected by armed guards and ballistic missile defenses for every carrier? Do they all have to be based in the US?

    Also, that $54 billion a year on military personnel doing commercial work sounds very suspicious. I mean I’m sure they are doing something that is justified and important but ignorant civilians like myself may mistake it as a complete waste of tax dollars…just typing.

    • M Yates

      The carriers tied up like that isn’t a secret, you can see the piers for many places off base – not to mention a boat. Anyone that would target them knows what’s there.

    • The pic has been on a few major news sites and anyone crossing the Hampton Bridge Tunnel can see the towers at the base. I WISH something like this could be kept secret.

      My major worry was espionage and terrorism. Any state-based attack requiring ballistic missile defenses on a CONUS base would cross the nuclear-response tripwires. That’s defense enough, I think.

About LT Matthew Hipple

Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the NEXTWAR blog and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government, he wishes they did. Did he mention he was host of the Sea Control podcast? You should start listening to that on Itunes, Xbox Music, or Stitcher Stream Radio.


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