Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus Jose Luis Magana/AP

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Navy Chief: Sequester Threatens to Undo Four Years of Progress

Mabus warns industry group that ships are sailing less, pilots flying less.

Sequestration and Congress’ annual “inability to pass a budget” are putting at risk all the gains the Navy and Marine Corps have made during his four years in office, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said on Wednesday.

“Arbitrary, unstrategic cuts don’t allow us to set any priorities,” Mabus told an Aerospace Industries Association Capitol Hill gathering addressing the state of “teamwork” among military, civilians, political leaders and industry partners.

“Already, ships are going to sea less, and pilots are flying less,” he said. Beginning next week, 200 naval aircraft will be “parked” and missiles will not be purchased, he warned. The Navy will start cutting depot maintenance, and naval aviation will “get smaller and smaller and not be as well maintained.” The workers who may leave “will not easily be replaced,” he added.

Since 2009, “we have procured 1,000 aircraft and drones,” including 200 Seahawk helicopters, 138 V-22 Osprey Marine helicopters, and 200 F-18 fighter jets, Mabus said. During his tenure, the Navy’s fleet, which dropped in size from 360 ships in 2001 down to 278 at the end of the George W. Bush administration, is climbing back to 300, in part because of 60 contracts let in the past several years. “Today all of this is at risk because we lack a feasible strategy guiding our approach to spending,” Mabus said.

The Navy’s growth during tight budget times was achieved, Mabus said, through “competition, multiple buys and, frankly, driving some hard bargains on behalf of taxpayers.” He added: “We owe our industry stable design, mature technology, and a look at what plan to build and investments to make in training and infrastructure.”

Mabus praised the Navy’s global presence, from the days when the Constitution was written to the most recent stationing of carriers in the Mediterranean after the discovery this August of use of chemical weapons in the civil war in Syria. “Our ships are sovereign U.S. territory from which our airplanes take off so we don’t need to occupy other nations,” he said.

Acknowledging budget pressures, Mabus added that “none of this means we can’t or should not spend less on defense or find savings.” After two long wars, “the American people have a right to expect to spend less on defense,” he said.

Mabus was introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Budget Committee, who bemoaned how the sequester is harming the economy in Washington state, where “for every large contractor, there are dozens of suppliers [providing] everything from paint to avionics,” and bringing $4.6 billion in to the state economy. She added that her highest priority is replacing the sequester with a “balanced bipartisan deal that doesn’t hurt the middle class or the aerospace industry.”

Mabus opened his comments with a tribute to the victims of last week’s shooting in the Washington Navy Yard. “We’re all too familiar with this searing pain in combat and training, but this was here at home,” he said, noting that the Navy this week lost two helicopter pilots. “But to lose civilians within sight of the Capitol on just another workday, that strikes at the heart of the Navy family.”