In coming days, the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its carrier strike group will deploy to the Middle East to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State -- and they'll do it with the help of parts stripped off of other operational ships.
This was one of the revelations Thursday from Navy operational commanders who testified to lawmakers about the readiness straits service ships and aircraft find themselves in amid maintenance funding shortfalls and the aftermath of sequestration budget cuts.
The commanders testified days after a congressional delegation made a fact-finding trip to Norfolk to speak with officers aboard the Eisenhower and tour other Navy units.
Capt. Scott Robertson, commander of the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy, told members of the readiness and seapower and projection forces subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee that 13 mission-essential parts had been cannibalized from the Normandy while it underwent maintenance to support the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group's upcoming deployment.
"One of the parts I had to give up was a cable harness from my spy radar, obviously a very critical function for an air defense ship," he said. "Even if I wasn't in a maintenance phase, I could not possibly surge right now."
Other captains who spoke to the lawmakers testified that cannibalization of parts from operations ships and aircraft was both a last resort and a daily reality for the Navy.
The commander of Submarine Squadron 6 out of Norfolk, Virginia, Capt. Gregory McRae, said parts were cannibalized from subs at the rate of 1.5 per day across the submarine force to fund current operations.
"If a part fails on a unit that's operational, we look in the supply system, and the supply system says, either there no parts available at all, or parts are not going to be available for a few months," McRae said. "In that case, the only resort we're left with is to look through a boat that has a similar piece of equipment that is not as high on the priority scale for operations, and we pull that piece from that boat and install it on the boat that's going to go out and do operations."
These last-ditch measures are the result of operations and maintenance funding shortfalls, residual maintenance backlogs from sequestration, and, in the aviation community, unforeseen program life extensions of aircraft due to F-35 delays and other factors, the Navy commanders testified.
Unforeseen operational tasking, such as the 30-day extension of the Truman Carrier Strike Group's deployment in April, further compounds these issues, said Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, who introduced the panel Thursday.
That deployment extension also came with a price: Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic Commander Capt. Randy Stearns said three F-18 Hornet squadrons were notified they would be the parts "donors" if the carrier strike group were to need spares during the remainder of its float.
Between Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet alone, Davidson said, the shortfall in operations and maintenance funding is $848 million.
In response to operational needs and maintenance shortfalls, he said, the Navy planned to delay four surface ship maintenance availability and one submarine major maintenance availability from the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year into next year. The flight hours of one of the Navy's carrier air wings would also be reduced, he said.
Maintenance shortfalls and delays are also having a negative effect on sailors who might spend an entire tour attached to a ship stuck in dry dock. Unforeseen delays in maintenance for the submarine USS Albany resulted in a planned 28-month maintenance period stretching to 43 months, Stearns said.
"Many of the sailors that have reported in for their first sea tour on the Albany will start and end their sea tour in the shipyard," he said.
The commanding officer of the Albany, Cmdr. Robert Landis, will see the end of his command tour without seeing the sub leave the yard, Stearns said. In part because of that, he said, Landis is opting for retirement at the end of his tour rather than continued service in the Navy.
Overall, the commanders said, the ability of operational units to surge was severely reduced or eliminated by the shortfalls.
"Accepting these risks means accepting less readiness across the whole of the Navy," Davidson said.
The testimony comes as Congress debates next year's defense budget bill. The House this month passed a version of the bill that funded only a partial year of overseas and war activities in order to dedicate more money to maintenance and acquisition. But Defense Secretary Ash Carter has expressed his strong disapproval of this move and has said he will recommend a veto of the bill if it remains in its current form.