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