Pentagon readiness depends on foundations that, in many cases, are teetering

Pentagon readiness depends on foundations that, in many cases, are teetering

A Navy submarine undergoes hull maintenance in a depot dry dock (GAO photo via DoD)

WASHINGTON — For want of a nail the shoe is lost, as goes the proverb. And then for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse, the rider is lost, for want of a rider the battle was lost, and for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.

The Pentagon has the nails. It still needs the modern day equivalent of horses to deliver them.

And it will be that “want” that will be a key factor in determining whether a long-term great power battle will be won or lost, Pentagon officials concede.

Even as the Pentagon continues to receive a full budget request, it still faces problems of a merchant fleet that is understaffed and with creaking ships; ports repair facilities that are falling apart and the lack of new, reliable refueling aircraft.

For example, the U.S. sealift capacity — the ships used to transport equipment from 17 U.S. ports to war theaters — is smaller in magnitude than it was during World War II.
Adding to the danger is the fact that the many of those ports are in sub-standard condition, Pentagon officials said.

Additionally, the 21 depots operated by the Pentagon to maintain, overhaul, and repair complex weapons systems and equipment are in poor condition — causing a “sharp decline in the availability of weapons systems for training and operations,” the General Accounting Office said in a recent report.

In the air, the Air Force is still struggling to debug its newer tanker — the KC 46A — and move it to the forefront of duty. It succeeded in a refueling for the first time over the weekend during the just started Northern Edge 2019 training exercise.

The new tanker is critical to extend the strike range of the F-15, F-22, and F-35 fighters and overcome what some Pentagon officials refer to as the “tryanny of distance” in areas such as the Pacific. The Air Force has repeatedly halted delivery of the Boeing-built aircraft because of foreign object debris being found in some closed compartments.

It is that “tryanny of distance” that is an unchanging challenge and thus the critical nature of the merchant fleet in particular.

“Eventually it’s going to catch up with you,” retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), said last week during the opening session of the 2019 Sea-Air-Space Exposition at National Harbor, Md., regarding the dismal state of the maritime fleet. “Without that (maritime fleet), it’s over very quickly.”

In April testimony to Congress, Buzby said of the 46 ships in his force, about 24 need urgent attention.

“I am concerned that the current fleet size could impact our ability to quickly assemble an adequate number of qualified mariners with the proficiency to operate large ships (unlimited horsepower and unlimited tonnage) needed for surge and sustainment sealift operations during a mobilization that lasts more than six months,” Buzby said then.

He underscored the imperative to upgrading the ports used to ship material. “The ability of our ports to increase capacity and handle cargo more efficiently is vital to the health of many domestic industries and our Nation’s economy,” he said then.

He said the Department of Transportation, of which MARAD is a part, now has $292.7 million for port infrastructure development grants. Another $20 million exists in the Small Shipyard Grant program for shipyard modernization projects, he said.

As for the condition of the military services’ 21 depots, which directly affect the timeliness of maintenance and the readiness of the weapon systems such as ships, aircraft, and tanks needed for military operations, the GAO said the Pentagon “lacks elements important to addressing key challenges.

“We found the facility conditions were poor at most depots. Depot equipment was generally older than its expected service life. Declining performance over the last 10 years at most depots reduced the availability of weapons systems for training and operations,” the GAO said.

As one example of the negative impact, the GAO determined there has been a 45 percent increase in days of maintenance delays at Navy shipyards.

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