Navy Begins Downsizing
The Virginian Pilot
January 27, 2004

 
After years of struggling to attract recruits and retain sailors, the sea-going service now has the opposite problem: too many people.

 

So the Navy is shedding them - and fast.

Last month, almost 400 junior officers, including recent graduates of the Naval Academy, were told that their services were no longer needed.

The get-tough approach to reduce the ranks also has affected senior enlisted sailors, who are finding themselves pushed into early retirement if they don't advance fast enough.

"A year ago, I thought I had at least three more years in the Navy. Now I have eight months," said Petty Officer 1st Class Michael J. Owens, of Buffalo, N.Y., who has almost 20 years of service.

Over the next year, cuts should be significant, but not drastic, officials said. About 10,000 fewer sailors should be serving by the end of the year, according to Bureau of Naval Personnel estimates.

The downsizing is necessary now, officials say, because the Navy has cut its number of ships, made technological improvements that reduce manning needs, and identified costly programs that could use the money now spent on excess personnel.

"We are a competitive organization," said Rear Adm. John W. Townes III, deputy chief of Naval Personnel. "If an individual has little potential for advancement, we can't be in the business of handing out a paycheck forever when their careers are limited."

More stringent requirements will now force young sailors to get promoted, move to a different job or leave the Navy.

Under a performance-based program called Perform to Serve, most sailors last year found out they could stay in. But 300 first-term sailors weren't as lucky.

They couldn't re-enlist because they didn't meet the grade in their overpopulated fields. Others failed to find an open spot doing another type of job.

Officials also expect some senior officers to take advantage of a new incentive to retire. Congress reduced the number of years - from three to two - that lieutenant commanders and higher-ranking officers need to serve in order to retire with full benefits at their current rank.

Only five years ago, the Navy failed to meet its recruiting goal for the first time since the draft ended in 1973. It missed its mark by 7,000 sailors.

Today, blessed by a high rate of retention and a weak civilian job market, the Navy already has cut its recruiting target for this year by 500.

"We just don't need as many sailors as we thought," said Cmdr. Randall J.T. Lescault, a spokesman for Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tenn.

The cutbacks might seem unusual during wartime. Policy-makers in Washington, D.C., are debating whether the military needs to grow because its troops have been stretched too thin, especially in the continuing occupation of Iraq.

Some have pushed the Bush administration to increase the numbers in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected that call again, saying that the cost of adding more uniformed personnel was not necessary and too expensive.

So far, the Navy has been left out of the push to bolster the ranks.

Unlike the Army, the numbers of sailors deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom dropped dramatically after President Bush declared the end to major combat in May.

The nation's fleet is also shrinking. The Navy is decommissioning destroyers faster than it is replacing them. Thanks to technological advances, the next generation of ships and aircraft carriers also will require fewer sailors.

Some jobs in the Navy are disappearing completely. For example, the Navy's 2,322 signalmen - sailors trained to transmit messages by hoisting a flag or a series of flags on a halyard - are scrambling to find another job before the Navy dissolves the rating on Sept. 30.

Adm. Vern Clark, the Navy's top uniformed officer, believes the effect of these tough-love policies will give the service a better quality work force and create savings that can be spent on the next generation of ships and planes.

"We will spend whatever it takes to equip and develop the men and women we need, but we will not spend one cent for somebody that we do not need," Clark said.

Navy personnel officials also point out that these manpower reductions represent a small fraction of its total force. Currently there are 55,000 officers and 323,000 enlisted sailors in the active- duty Navy.

The downsizing also pales compared to the thousands of sailors let go after the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, when the Navy had a fleet double the size.

Junior officers who are losing their jobs simply did not complete requirements necessary for advancement, officials said. For example, surface warfare officers need to spend time at sea to earn their pins, and flight officers need time in the sky to earn their wings.

But when these officers used to wash out of flight school or receive a medical waiver, they often found other jobs in the Navy to remain promotable.

No longer.

About three-quarters of the cuts affect junior officers in naval aviation. On the Norfolk-based carriers, they include 11 from the Enterprise, seven from the Eisenhower, eight from the Ronald Reagan and a dozen each from the Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and George Washington. The layoffs also include one junior officer from each of the five carrier air wings, said Mike Maus, a spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet Naval Air Force.

For some, the layoff comes with a side benefit. One local Academy graduate, for example, only served two of the five years of required service in the Navy after graduation.

But others, like Lt. j.g. Kelley Anderson, are on the way out after longer service.

A prior enlisted sailor who is now a junior-grade lieutenant, Anderson entered the Navy 10 years ago. She trained as an aviation mechanic, advanced quickly and got picked up for officer training on her first try.

But a knee injury sidelined her shortly after she received her commission.

"I worked hard at my rehabilitation," Anderson said. "But when I got to my ship, I had chronic pain. ... The Navy determined that I couldn't serve on a ship."

She never received her surface-warfare pin.

In years past, Anderson would likely have been able to stay in, choosing another permanent career path. She has been working more than a year in the public affairs office of the Atlantic Fleet Naval Surface Force headquarters in Norfolk.

The single mother of a 13-year-old son found out in December that the Navy no longer wanted her, but she doesn't begrudge her fate.

"I might be unpromotable. That doesn't mean I wasn't well- qualified for my job now," she said. "But I understand. I've had a great time in the Navy, and it's time for something different."

Anderson, who hopes to land a job locally in the communications field, said she would stay in the Navy if she could. She complimented the Navy on its programs to ease transition from the military to the civilian world.

But the manpower reductions have angered and frustrated some sailors who believe their time in the Navy is far from complete. Many sailors facing ouster said they did not want to comment publicly because they are appealing their case or fear retribution.

Owens, who works in public affairs for a recruiting command in Buffalo, N.Y., said he thinks the Navy is missing out when it gave him his walking papers.

"I'm 47," he said. "I'm not ready to retire."

Under the Navy's High-Tenure Program, Owens needed to advance to chief petty officer to stay. But as a military journalist, he said, the field is very competitive. "If I had more time, I know I could make it. I'm good at what I do."

This is not the first time Owens has faced a Navy cutback. In 1992, he was forced out during a reduction. By 1994, the Navy realized it had let too many people go and it brought Owens back in.

"I made the calculation to give up my civilian career for the Navy again," he said.

Owens said that, despite the draw down, he is still committed to the Navy.

"It's been my life," he said. "I think I'd volunteer to help out if I have to go. I just don't want to leave it all behind."

Do you think it's wise to downsize any military service during wartime?