Hiring freeze cools off Navy ship buildup too

President Donald Trump said he wants to build up the Navy’s fleet to 355 ships. In addition to the budget issues such a move would raise, another problem is standing in the way: Trump’s federal hiring freeze.

As a candidate, Trump called for a bigger Navy. The Navy hasn’t had any problem with that, in fact it estimates that it needs a fleet of at least 355 ships to meet combatant command demands.

But to build the fleet from the current size of 274 to 355, the Navy needs engineers and right now they aren’t being hired.

“If we are going to build a 355-ship Navy, we are going to have to build the workforce to do that,” said Allison Stiller who is performing the duties of principal civilian deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. “You want to be equipped to make sure you have the right level of folks working on the program.”

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Stiller, who spoke Feb. 23 at a Navy League event in Arlington, Virginia, said the Navy is thinking about the hiring freeze right now in terms of how it will be able to grow its fleet.

“The hiring freeze right now is presenting challenges, but there are exceptions to the rules and so we’ve been working through that. Each of the systems commands has the ability to say, ‘That’s a critical positions we need to fill … but we’ve got to have the pipeline,” Stiller said.

On Jan. 23, Trump instituted a hiring freeze on all federal civilian jobs. The Defense Department later released a list of 16 occupations that would be exempt from the freeze; those include firefighters and childcare providers.

But, individual exemptions Stiller spoke of will be met with strong skepticism.

“Designated officials will really have to look at the functions of the position, the duties and make sure that they are absolutely necessary to meet our national security or public safety responsibilities,” the official said. “True, we accept risk every day, but the officials will have to provide alternatives and look for ways to meet the department’s needs without filling the position,” said a senior Defense official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity.

Other services found the hiring freeze to conflict with their core missions as well.

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Gen. Glenn Walters, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told Congress earlier this month the freeze presents challenges as the military attempts to follow through with Defense Secretary James Mattis’ orders to rebuild military readiness in 2017.

“We’re doing a lot of planning to increase readiness, grow the force, all of these things, but I’m 50 percent short of contracting officers already,” he told the Senate Armed Services readiness subcommittee. “If I can’t hire contracting officers, we can put any plan we want into place, but I can’t execute it. It’s not going to come to fruition. That’s just one of our challenges.”

Also conflating the increase in shipbuilding is the ambiguity of future budgets.

The Navy is working on multiple budgets to prepare for sequestration or a budget agreement to relieve sequestration for 2018 and 2019.

The Navy still hasn’t received any topline numbers from the Trump administration, so the service is flying blind on its preparations.

Stiller said now that Congress has confirmed the new Office of Management and Budget director, topline numbers are expected soon.

Another issue keeping the Navy from building up its fleet right away is the readiness problem.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran said last month that the Navy wants its first extra dollar to go toward readiness.

“This is a long war we’ve been in, we’ve got emerging and reemerging threats that have all raised the stakes on making this long game even longer and we are not going to stay healthy if we don’t pay attention to our maintenance accounts,” Moran said. The “274 [ships], that 308 or that 350 is not going to be the same number at readiness funding levels that we have today.”

Moran said maintenance is being put off in the current budget environment.

“Deferred maintenance is insidious, it takes a toll on the long-term readiness of the fleet,” Moran said. “When the transition team came around to all of us in the building and asked us what we could do with more money right now, the answer was not to buy more ships. The answer was to make sure the 274 that we had were maintained and modernized to make 275 ships worth of combat power, then we will start buying more ships.”

Moran mentioned two ships that lost a year of operational capability due to maintenance problems.

Moran said the Navy has its readiness budget number ready but is not releasing it yet.