When the Department of the Navy temporarily runs low on spending money, it can't put routine carrier maintenance on a Visa card, nor take out a Citibank mortgage on a hospital ship to pay huge fleet fuel-oil invoices. It has to defer, or forego altogether, things really needed now. The USN is currently suffering a shortfall of almost $420 million in working cash for non-warfighting necessities for the remainder of fiscal year 2009. Defense analysts suggest that this problem, which isn't entirely new or unique to the Navy, arose because the Pentagon doesn't fully budget in advance for routine needs and predictable upkeep costs. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), a former Secretary of the Navy, and President Obama are among those trying to change that.

In the meantime, ships not now in combat theaters are having cruising time cut back, and the air wings are facing reduced flying hours. While more training is going on in land-based simulators instead, this could lead to reduced readiness when the units deploy overseas -- and it sends a visible, bad message to the warriors about who does or doesn't support them.

Thousands of personnel transfers normally done in the summer months are being delayed into FY10 (which starts on October 1, 2009), when more money is expected to be available to cover moving expenses. This means parents with kids will have to relocate in the middle of the upcoming school year, which puts added domestic strains on everyone involved. Retention bonuses are being abruptly discontinued, at least for a while, in all but the most prized specialties. While Navy retention has been good lately due to unemployment in the private sector, those bonuses were counted on by many Sailors and dependents to help make ends meet. The USN has been striving to better support good home life, secure from unnecessary service-enforced disruptions. Now it seems like all involved are losing ground.

The Navy is also cutting back on or eliminating sending ships to yearly Fleet Weeks and harbor festivals along America's three coasts. Given how hard the Navy worked to try to engage the public on the importance of seapower, during the recent "Conversation with America" program, the conspicuous absence of haze-gray vessels and aircraft this year in so many seaports is bound to erode the benefits of that engagement process. It also means that the general public will become yet more socially isolated from its Sailors, who normally pour ashore during Fleet Weeks to tour and shop and mingle, with positive local media coverage that this year will not happen.

These seem like good reasons for the Department of the Navy to stop relying on mid-year supplementals, whose prompt full approval by Congress is never assured, to pay for normal day-to-day expenditures. The hidden or soft costs of this practice are very real costs.

-- Joe Buff

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