Citing need for growth, Navy eases physical fitness standards, cancels early-outs

There are still at least six weeks to go before the public unveiling of the federal budget for 2019, but the Navy is already sending strong signals that it’s planning for the sort of personnel growth it might need in order to eventually field a fleet of 350 ships and to fill the manning shortfalls it has today.

Over the last two weeks, the service has pushed out several policy changes designed to hold onto as many of its existing sailors as possible, reversing programs that culled personnel from its ranks in prior years.

In one of the changes, the Navy told sailors last week that it was relaxing previous rules under which servicemembers could be kicked out by reason of physical fitness. The service ordered commands to put a stop to any actions they’ve taken to separate sailors simply because they’ve failed the Navy’s physical fitness assessment (PFA), a twice-a-year screening process that combines medical checkups with the Navy’s physical readiness test and body fat limits.

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Instead, those servicemembers will be allowed to fail the PFA at least twice. Although they will be ineligible for promotions until they pass a PFA, they will continue to serve until they’ve lived up to their previously-agreed-on military service obligations.

Sailors who have already been ordered to leave the Navy because of a PFA failure can now also request that those orders be cancelled, and anyone who’s already failed a PFA before will have that record zeroed-out at the beginning of January.

“Adjustments to physical readiness program policies reflect a continued emphasis to invest in and retain our most important resource, our sailors,” Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel, wrote in a message to the fleet. “Retention of every capable Sailor is critical to the operational readiness of the Navy. The goal of the Navy’s physical readiness program is to maintain a minimum prescribed level of fitness necessary for world-wide deployment and to maintain a sailor’s long-term health and wellness.”

A few days earlier, officials also did away with a pair of programs that had allowed early-outs for servicemembers who wanted to leave the Navy of their own volition.

One, the Enlisted Early Transition Program, was instituted while the Navy was in a period of high retention and low demand for growth. It let sailors apply to exit the military as much as two years before the end of their obligated service.

The Navy also explicitly cancelled a program that had allowed officers to apply for early retirement, but said its intention was to do away with all programs that let  military members depart prior to their obligations.

“We are in a growing Navy. This requires more people at a time when we are still working our way back to desired sea duty manning levels, and when the competition for talent is especially keen. We will certainly recruit and train many more sailors to help meet these demands, but that will not be enough,” Burke wrote. “It has been decades since the last period of major personnel growth in our Navy. You will see many additional policy changes in the coming weeks and months to set us on the right course.”

Indeed, the Navy’s active duty end strength has been slowly and steadily declining since its last peak in 2002, when 385,000 sailors were on duty. It closed out 2017 with 319,000, below its authorized end strength.

The service requested a modest increase in its 2018 budget: 329,000 sailors, or 4,000 more than it’s currently authorized. But Defense officials said at the time of that budget rollout that they were focused on restoring readiness to all of the military services, and that the military growth President Trump promised on the campaign trail would be reflected in budgets for 2019 and later.

Speaking to reporters last week, Patrick Shanahan, the deputy secretary of Defense, said the 2020 budget rollout will actually be the first year that fully reflects the president’s national security strategy, but glimmers of growth will begin to appear in the 2019 edition.

“We’ll actually start building the 2020 budget in January, but ‘19 is a step up,” he said. “We had to build up ’19 concurrently with doing the NDS, trying to do those in parallel and adjusting in real time.”

On the campaign trail, the president pushed for a much larger Navy, an objective senior Navy officials also laid out a year ago when they called for a fleet of 350 ships in their latest force structure assessment.

Officials have been less clear about the manpower requirements involved in the fleet buildup, but a strategic review the Navy released this month in the aftermath of four at-sea collisions earlier this year noted that the service already faces challenges in meeting its current requirements for personnel with a fleet of 279 ships.

Excessive demands on personnel — both from operational requirements and administrative tasking from higher headquarters — are a significant component of the Navy’s declining readiness, wrote the authors, former chief of naval operations Gary Roughead and Defense Business Board chairman Michael Bayer. They added the service’s past plans to reduce personnel requirements through on-board technological improvements have not tended to come to fruition.

“The annual cost per sailor has increased by more than 25 percent since 1998, making manpower reductions a tempting way to reduce costs in the long-term,” they wrote.” However…history shows the potential for technology-enabled manpower savings were routinely overestimated. Three of the last four ship classes required increases to crew size after fleet delivery. Overly optimistic workload assessments create a cycle of unbalanced manpower allocations, unachievable individual ship workloads, and eventual increases in ships’ crew size. Sailors being overworked, or perceiving themselves to be overworked, also effects retention, leading to a fleet with less average experience and requiring increased recruiting expense.”