By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
OAK HARBOR — Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus visited Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on Wednesday to tell sailors their jobs are not in jeopardy, despite billions of dollars in looming budget cuts to the military.
Chief Petty Officer Adam Dickson watched as Mabus posed for photos with dozens of sailors after his talk to an all-hands crowd in a huge hangar on base. Dickson said the visit was welcomed.
“It was great to hear the secretary dispel the rumors about the cuts,” said Dickson, 31, of Oak Harbor. “He laid out the path for the Navy, and it was refreshing to hear his encouragement.”
Mabus’ public affairs officer, Capt. Pamela Kunze, said the secretary wanted to make the trip out to Navy Region Northwest because of its importance in the Navy’s long-term plans to focus on the western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf.
“He feels it’s important for people to hear from him because there’s a lot of angst and uncertainty out there,” Kunze said. “His message is that despite the cuts that are coming, he is going to do all he can to get Navy personnel the tools and equipment that they need to do their jobs.”
Mabus said the message was for enlisted personnel.
“There will be no impact on active duty personnel or their families in terms of pay and benefits,” Mabus said. “There are big impacts, however.”
The Pentagon already has asked the various branches to prepare for cuts, including the Navy, and make plans for even deeper cuts if Congress can’t reach a larger budget deal to cut the deficit by March 1 to head off sequestration, across-the-board cuts that Congress is using as incentive to reach a deal. Finding deficit reductions would put off the automatic cuts of 7 percent to the military until the start of the new fiscal year.
The cuts could mean holes totaling nearly $9 billion for the Navy, Mabus said.
In the Navy Region Northwest, this means, for example, that the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in Bremerton won’t get its planned repairs this year and scheduled aircraft maintenance at Whidbey is canceled.
Temporary jobs will be axed and a civilian-hiring freeze will be imposed. Non-essential travel and training will be stopped. Technology spending will be reduced, and aircraft procurement will be deferred.
At Naval Station Everett, as with the rest of the regional Navy bases, millions of dollars will be saved by canceling maintenance and modernization projects and other contracts with local businesses. Flying hours at Whidbey and ship exercises from Everett will be curtailed.
If March 1 comes and Congress still doesn’t have a budget, most civilian employees will be required to take 22 days of unpaid furlough. Some deployments will be canceled and others will be reduced in length and numbers of warships.
And forget about seeing the Blue Angels show in Seattle and any fleet celebrations on the West Coast. Deployed sailors won’t be having any fun either, because port visits will be reduced.
The USS Nimitz, the aircraft carrier based in Everett, has undergone some mechanical repairs and its next deployment was delayed, but it will embark this year as planned, Mabus said. Refueling of the nuclear reactors on the USS Abraham Lincoln, formerly based in Everett, won’t happen this year because of the budget problems, he said.
While most of the looming cuts are about operations and maintenance, they will make a difference in Navy readiness, Mabus said.
“When you train less, fly less and steam less, your readiness is bound to suffer,” Mabus said. “We need the federal budget to be passed so we can continue to have the flexibility to do a good job of managing our priorities.”
The Navy is the third-largest employer in the state and spends more than $5.3 billion in the Northwest region.
“The Northwest is critical to the Navy mission and the people of Washington are among our greatest partners,” Mabus said. “I could not be more proud of the Navy in this region, at Everett, on Whidbey Island and on the Kitsap Peninsula.”
Earlier Wednesday, Mabus spoke to the sailors at Naval Base Kitsap. Thursday, he plans to host a ship-naming ceremony at the Port of Seattle in honor of the future USS Washington, a Virginia-class nuclear submarine named in honor of the state.
Washington is home to three aircraft carriers, 13 submarines and 13 surface ships, hundreds of support vessels and aircraft, as well as a Navy community that includes more than 100,000 active duty, civilians, reservists, family members and retirees.