The Navy’s disastrous and deadly 2017, punctuated by a slew of accidents and fatal at-sea collisions ending with the deaths of nearly 20 American sailors, was the culmination of deep-seated issues within the sea service’s budget, operations and culture stretching back decades, issues that Navy leaders are only now attempting to address.
And, despite the determination of the Trump White House and defense hawks on Capitol Hill to boost the troubled service’s budget and mission support, the service faces a battleship full of problems coming out of 2017 that will take more than one year to turn around.
Seven U.S. sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald were killed when the warship collided with Philippine-flagged shipping vessel near the Japanese coast in June. Two months later, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, resulting in 10 sailors killed.
Prior to the fatal collisions involving the McCain and Fitzgerald, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel off the country’s eastern coast last May, a month before the incident involving the Fitzgerald.
As a result, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered a worldwide 48-hour stand down of all service operations. The order was issued to gain insight into the circumstances that led to three major, at-sea collisions in the Pacific within four months, and to see if systemic problems of command and operations left the Navy susceptible to similar catastrophes.
“The Navy has recognized that we are in a boatload of trouble here. We cannot paper this over,” retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “Something had to give, and what you saw this past year is seeing it give.”
Even the Naval Academy’s football team, which saw a record 14-game winning streak over Army broken in 2015, lost a second straight heartbreaker to its hated rival last month.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain ripped into Navy leaders at a scathing Capitol Hill hearing in September, accusing the service of failing to heed critical reviews in 2010 and 2015 warning that dwindling training and maintenance for overseas ships could put sailors in harms way.
“Many of the issues we are discussing today have been known to Navy leaders for years. How do we explain that?” Mr. McCain, a onetime U.S. Navy pilot and Annapolis graduate, asked at one point.
But from the wardrooms and bridges aboard American warships deployed worldwide, all the way to Navy headquarters in Washington, the tragedies in the Pacific that defined the last year for the sea service were predictable and possibly preventable, current and former service members say.
Shortly after the stand-down order was issued last year, former head of capabilities for the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Callender reached out to former colleagues still in uniform in the Pacific and elsewhere across the Navy to get a read on the situation. The majority of the officers and sailors he spoke to said the deadly four months in the Pacific that prompted the order were no surprise, he told The Washington Times.
“There were warnings,” Mr. Callender, now a senior defense fellow at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, said. But those warnings went unnoticed or unheeded by senior Navy brass. The decision makers at headquarters in Washington “were so far removed from the waterfront, that they were not as aware of what the problem really was,” he said.
“It was just a matter of time before we would see this happen, and that is the part that kind of scares me,” said Mr. Callender.
Part of those problems stretch back to the steady reduction of the Navy’s fleet enacted by the Clinton White House in the 1990s, a result of the so-called “peace dividend we sort of conned ourselves into” during the Clinton era, Mr. Callender said.
Subsequent administration’s continued to whittle down the Navy from its previous height of roughly 700 ships, ultimately resulting in the nearly 270-ship fleet the sea service fields today, he added.
During the post 9/11 era, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama accelerated the Clinton-era cuts to U.S. sea power as budget focus inside the Pentagon shifted from maritime engagements to counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare. While the demands on the Navy did not diminish, the service’s overall combat strength did, said Capt. Hendrix.
On average, roughly 100 U.S. warships out of the entire fleet are engaged in active combat operations, he said. With a 700-ship Navy, service leaders could sustain having 100 ships out on combat missions at any one time. But with a fleet of barely 300 ships, “suddenly having 100 ships forward deployed, now you are starting to break into unsustainable levels” of deployments, he said.
The Trump White House has indicated it is looking to remedy the Navy’s fleet shortfalls. Administration officials are expected to formalize the sea service’s 355-shipbuilding goal within the White House’s National Security Strategy. The highly anticipated strategy is on track for release later this month, Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters Monday.
The Trump administration’s defense budget blueprint for fiscal year 2019 — the first full-fledged defense budget drafted by the administration — is expected to include the 355-ship goal in the Navy’s proposed bottom line. The shipbuilding goals was included in the defense spending package for fiscal year 2018, signed into law by Mr. Trump in December.
Shrinking ship numbers, in the face of increasing maritime threats to U.S. and allied navies across the globe, did spark the slow erosion of Navy capabilities resulting in last year’s calamities at sea. But an erosion of professionalism within the sea service, prodded by mounting operational demands on the fleet from senior commanders, also set the stage for 2017’s troubles.
A pair of wide-ranging Navy reviews initiated in the wake of the Fitzgerald and McCain incidents, one focusing explicitly on the Pacific’s Seventh Fleet and another conducted service-wide, found severe failings in Navy crew preparedness and ability to carry out the most basic seagoing activities during service operations.
Accidents involving American warships in the Pacific were the result in officers and crew members lacking basic seamanship skills, such as navigation and situational awareness, along with “failures to follow the international rules of the road” when traversing international waters, Adm. Richardson told reporters in November.
This lack of basic seamanship skills, a result of minimal or insufficient training, represented another trade-off Navy leaders were forced to make to field a smaller fleet against a growing threat scenario, Mr. Hendrix explained. Valuing efficiency over capabilities, Navy leaders attempted to “squeeze every dollar” into operations and growing the fleet, which left little time or funding for training, he said.
The lack of adequate training led to Navy crews being ill-prepared to handle the rigors of an unrelenting operational tempo of a region like the Pacific. In the end “it was just a breakdown in culture and practices” of a sea service being forced to do more with less, Mr. Hendrix said.
A Government Accountability Office independent review conducted after last year’s string of Navy disasters reported widespread readiness and safety problems with service ships deployed in the Pacific. For example, more than a third of training certifications for the Navy’s cruisers and destroyers based in Japan had expired in June.
More generally, the GAO report in September found Navy ships based overseas faces degraded readiness level; reduced crew sizes and longer working shifts that have contributed to safety problems, and the inability to meet maintenance schedules. Of the 11 prior recommendations the watchdog agency had given the Navy, the GAO said, the service had to date “implemented only one.”
The problems have been exacerbated by rising pressure to carry out the Navy’s missions in the Pacific, driven by recent threats from North Korea and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, said Navy officials.
“The world is much more dangerous now than it was 18 years ago,” at the peak of the Navy’s fleet size and strength, Mr. Callender noted. “More moles are popping up that the Navy is being asked to whack,” he added.
Despite suffering training, personnel and capability deficiencies, Navy commanders attempted to meet those demands in the Pacific and elsewhere, to calamitous effect, Mr. Hendrix said. “It’s a can-do culture,” he said of the officers and sailors that populate the Navy’s Surface Warfare fleet.
While members of the Navy’s submarine fleet or the service’s aviators would balk at executing a mission with less than adequate training or combat resources, surface warfare sailors and officers will undertake combat operations under less than ideal circumstances, “and they are proud of that,” Mr. Hendrix explained.
But that can-do culture did more harm than good for Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and the service writ large, Navy leaders found in the post-accident reviews ordered by Adm. Richardson.
Operations for Seventh Fleet became defined by “high-priority, short-notice taskings” which resulted in an overstretched force, service leaders found. When coupled with fleet commanders willing to deploy with undertrained crews on overworked ships, an unprecedented breakdown in Navy operations was a foregone conclusion, Mr. Callender said.
Last year’s fatal incidents “was just a combination of all that coming to a head” for the Navy, he said. The collisions involving the McCain and Fitzgerald were just “the canary in the coal mine” for Navy leaders, Mr. Callender warned, saying such incidents could plague the service’s fleets in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and other flashpoints across the globe.
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