The year was 1979. America’s military had emerged from the Vietnam War earlier in the decade and was now facing sizable and significant budget cuts.
Capt. Tom Shanahan, commanding officer of the USS Canisteo, had just returned from the Mediterranean Sea and was now leading an overhaul of his fleet supply ship. Over the course of 10 months, the crew assigned to the Canisteo gradually disappeared, relocated by the Navy to other assignments. Those personnel cuts eventually left Shanahan with so few men that he couldn’t take his ship to sea.
“Little by little, they stripped us of a lot of the people we had, key people,” Shanahan recounted recently. “By the time we were ready to get underway from the shipyard and go back to Norfolk, we didn’t have enough people. We didn’t have enough people in any of the departments, but mainly we didn’t have enough people in the engine room.”
Shanahan took the bold step of refusing to certify his ship as seaworthy. He warned his superiors long before his readiness reports. Yet when he deemed his warship not ready for combat, it came as a surprise to many in the military.
“We were in one of those periods where in order to cut costs, we cut personnel. And we cut personnel too far,” he said. “You see that cycle repeating itself, and now we’re in that same situation right now as we were before. So you’re readiness goes down. It just has to.”
More than 30 years later, the U.S. Navy is facing another readiness crisis. Shanahan’s story illustrates how budget cuts after Vietnam left the military unprepared. Cuts today are creating a new set of challenges.
Stars and Stripes reported that more than one-fifth of Navy ships were not ready for combat. One of those ships, the USS Essex, has suffered three-high profile problems over the past year alone. It was unable to complete two missions because of mechanical or maintenance issues. And just this month, as it made the trip from Japan to San Diego, the aging warship’s steering failed, causing it to collide with a tanker.
“I can see in the USS Essex the same types of things that happened to me in Canisteo,” Shanahan said. “You draw down equipment, you draw down personnel, and therefore, you draw down the readiness of your ship to deploy. I had that case in Canisteo. I was drawn down to the standpoint I could not get the ship to sea, and I had to be honest with my superiors and say I couldn’t do it.”
In the case of the USS Essex, the 21-year-old amphibious assault ship spent the past 12 years deployed in Japan and other areas of the Pacific. It will undergo maintenance for about a year in San Diego.
The readiness challenges are something Shanahan thinks can be avoided. He noted the typical pattern of cutting the military’s budget following conflicts, a short-term perspective that undermines the long-term goals of protecting America.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to get the budget under control by devoiding yourself of a national defense,” he said. “There’s only one place to be when you’re fighting war. Second place is no good. You have to win.”
Shanahan said he saw this play out before and regrets that it could be happening again. Unless Congress acts, the U.S. military is facing $492 billion of mandatory defense cuts from sequestration agreed to in the Budget Control Act.
For the Navy, readiness plays a crucial role, according to Heritage’s Brian Slattery. He said it’s particularly important in areas of the world like the Asia-Pacific, where China has shown assertiveness.
“The aircraft carrier fleet is an asset that should be of particular concern,” Slattery wrote on The Foundry. “There is a possibility that soon the fleet may fall to nine ships — below the congressionally mandated requirement of 11. Meanwhile, China has recently begun sea trials on its first aircraft carrier, and its officials have expressed a requirement of at least three carriers ‘so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively.’”
President Obama, however, shows no sign of changing course. Just last week during a speech at the Air Force Academy, Obama defended his sizable budget cuts and told graduates that they would need to prepare for a leaner force.
This is the third of a three-part series on the risks of budget cuts to America’s military. It was produced and directed by Will Lamborn. Brandon Stewart and Alison Meyer assisted with production. For more videos from Heritage, subscribe to our YouTube channel.