HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) - WAVY News’ Military Reporter Art Kohn interviewed one of the Navy’s highest ranking officers about Syria, sequestration and naval security concerns.
While diplomats work to secure a peaceful resolution for the crisis in Syria, Naval forces remain positioned to launch a strike on the Assad Regime. Even if the destroyers never fire a shot, just maintaining a presence in the region is costing the Department of Defense and the fleet a lot of money and resources. Factor in sequestration, and the equation gets even stickier.
The man who must find solutions to the sticky problem is Admiral Bill Gortney, Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces.
"We have seven cruisers and destroyers, a submarine, an aircraft carrier and its' embarked air wing right now focused on Syria,” Gortney said.
At least two of the Norfolk-based destroyers had their deployments extended beyond seven months in order to keep the pressure on Syrian President, Bashir al Assad. Extended deployments aren't new to the Navy, but they do come with consequences, like delaying a ship’s scheduled maintenance, or availability, as the Navy calls it.
"If I don't do an availability, I reduce the life of that ship, so there is some long-range impacts that the ship's not going to make its' expected service life,” Gortney said. “Plus, I'm going to miss some modernization opportunity to make sure it has the capability it needs in the future."
In addition, sailors are missing time with their families. Separation is expected in this line of work, but few sailors expect deployments to extend beyond six or seven months when they enlist.
"My concern is that they have faith and their families have faith that we'll get them back and we'll get somebody else out there, because we're not going to ask them to defy physics,” Gortney said. “We're not going to ask them to defy what's longer than people can handle."
But with the crisis in Syria and the budget battle at home, deployments are lasting as long as 10 months, and that concerns Admiral Gortney.
"A single 10-month deployment in a sailor's career, he’ll probably live through it. Five 10-month deployments, he’s probably not going to want to be a sailor anymore,” Gortney said.
As for the morale aboard the Norfolk-based destroyers off the coast of Syria, Admiral Gortney said that's what the crews of those ships joined the navy for -- to be forward deployed, defending the nation. But the Fleet Forces Commander said there are still limits.
Another big concern for Gortney is keeping sailors safe. There's a big crackdown coming for security on the nation's Navy and Marine bases. Almost immediately following last week's shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus requested the security review.
Two big names from the Navy here in Hampton Roads are tasked with making that happen.
Admiral Gortney got this directive from the Chief of Naval Operations Monday, instructing him to conduct a physical security assessment of Navy and Marine Corps installations. He wasn't given much time to get it done, either.
"It's hard work,” Gortney said.
He must provide a "Quick Look" assessment of physical security and access control measures to the Chief of Naval Operations by Friday, but says much of the ground work is already done.
"We just finished a six-month base-line security review for all of the facilities in all of the Continental United States and overseas, so we'll be able to answer that particular first question,” he said.
That review was part of an anti-terrorism force protection initiative. The shootings at the Navy Yard were carried out by a contractor and not an act of terror. Naval Station Norfolk recently met with area contractors to look for ways to reduce the number of years a background check would include before someone is cleared to work on the base.
WAVY.com asked Gortney if that had changed in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting.
"I don't think so,” he said. “We were already looking at it well before then, and you know, you have to strike the right balance. And if you wanted to only allow people on the base that have never made a mistake in their lives, it'd be a pretty lonely base wouldn’t it?"
Admiral Gortney said the Defense Department can screen uniformed personnel thoroughly, but there are challenges investigating the civilian workforce.
"...they're privacy restrictions, privacy laws which are there for the right reason,” he said.
Gortney said they the Navy relies on contractors to vet their employees before hiring them. Something he refers to as a "connecting tissue" for background checks.
"Is it perfect? No, it's not. Can we make it better? Yes, we can. Will we make it better? Yes, we will. Will we make it perfect? We're not going to be able to make it perfect … “ he said.
Admiral Gortney says the Navy will continue to work on its security procedures with regard to base access. He has until the end October to complete a more thorough physical security review to meet the terms of this directive from the Chief of Naval Operations.
Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe spent part of Wednesday in Hampton Roads, talking about the future of the region.
A man is facing attempted abduction charges after police said he tried to grab two juvenile girls and exposed himself.
A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of more than 2,000 EMTs and paramedics who were abruptly laid off over the weekend.