The shortage of maintenance funds and its impact on Navy and Marine Corps readiness became an issue during a budget hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, with the Marines' top officer noting particular shortfalls in equipment at home that could limit the ability to respond to any new mission.
Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said the intensive use of equipment in more than eight years of conflict has left his force in urgent need of additional funds. Although the Marines fighting in Afghanistan have 100 percent of what they need, "we have driven equipment stocks at home to unacceptable levels," Conway said.
With only 60 percent of required weapons and other equipment in the units at home, "we could be in some serious straits" if called on for additional commitments, he told the committee.
Although Congress has promised funding to reset his forces, Conway said, "increasingly, we cannot wait for the guns to fall silent in Afghanistan for that relief to start."
In his prepared statement, Conway said the estimated cost of replacing or repairing worn out or lost equipment was $8 billion, including $3 billion requested in the fiscal 2011 Overseas Contingency Operations account. He cited the need for an additional $5 billion to restructure the Marines' current inventory of heavy equipment to enable the service to bolster its lighter expeditionary capabilities after missions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan are over.
Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, did not raise the material readiness issue, but when questioned by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., he said, "we are trending toward significant risk" of some elements of the Navy being unable to meet their operational demands because of heavy deployments and funding shortages.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus noted that the Navy tries to do "reset in stride," by repairing its ships, aircraft and other equipment on a regular basis. As a result, the depot maintenance and upgrade funds requested are crucial to keeping the Navy ready, Mabus said.
If the Navy did not get the "fairly substantial increase" in maintenance funds requested for fiscal 2011, it would have to delay depot repairs on nine ships and 21 aircraft, he said.
Levin raised the issue because last year his committee and the House Armed Services Committee authorized $395 million in unbudgeted maintenance, but the Appropriations committees did not include the funds. He noted that maintenance projects made up most of the Navy's list of $572 million in "unfunded requirements" for this year.
Another issue of concern for Conway was getting the short takeoff version of the F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter, by 2012, which could be in doubt due to program delays.
In response to questions about the alternative engine for the F-35, which Levin and the committee approved over administration opposition last year, Roughead said storing two engines would create space problems on his aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships.