The replies were varied, but similar in their conclusions. On the positive side, the ships were happy with their improving e-mail capability and the "Smart Ship" initiatives. These responses should come as no surprise, because we man our ships with more and more sailors and officers who report for duty with laptop computers in their seabags. (Did you see how our sailors overloaded the BuPers web site recently, inquiring about recent advancement lists? There is a signal here.) This investment in connectivity greatly reduces the feeling of isolation from the homefront during extended underway periods and significantly enhances the quality of life for sailors and their families. Clearly this commitment to quality-of-life improvements translates to enhanced combat readiness.
The recommendations for improvement also were clear. The deckplates told us we needed to reduce the burden of the interdeployment training cycle (IDTC), the period between deployments, on our sailors. We needed to improve our combat system integration processes, upgrade our ship's nontactical computers, improve our ship-to-shore connectivity, fix the serious manning shortage of critical at-sea billets, improve advancement opportunities, and reduce the inport workload, much of which was viewed as unnecessary on the deckplates.
These recommendations became our work list at SurfLant. The inter-deployment training cycle was fertile ground for plowing. Comprised of a multitude of individual events (some closely coupled and others loosely integrated, at best) stretching over a 12-24 month period, it's the biggest dis-satisfier on the waterfront. The interdeployment training cycle is an area where the Type Commander can have impact, and subsequently, we've made a number of improvements.
- We've given greater authority to destroyer squadrons and other commanders in tailoring training to specific unit needs. Each ship and their "boss" will determine how many underway training assists are needed. For some, this means fewer demands on their crews' time. The commanding officers-not a training organization—must be responsible for their own combat readiness.
- The number of inspections and assists has been reduced from 215 in 1995 to fewer than 120 today, and we're looking for more reductions.
- We've reduced preventive maintenance by 1.3 million manhours forcewide.
- We're providing funding to take sailors off fire watches and habitability work during maintenance availabilities and overhauls. This eases the post-overhaul uphill struggle and frustration to rebuild teamwork and readiness, and allows ships' crews to come out of extended maintenance periods better trained.
- Guidance has been changed to allow an increase in the number of in-port duty sections. Ten-section duty provides a sailor another month with the family between deployments. Done properly, ships can handle any inport emergency.
- Operational risk management concepts are fully integrated into a complex scheduling scheme.
- We are analyzing administrative requirements and programs from ships' tickler systems to identify unnecessary or redundant taskings.
- To fix the manning shortage of critical at-sea billets, the fleets, BuPers, OpNav sponsors, and Type Commanders are attacking the imbalance between sea/shore rotation for sea-intensive ratings.
- We have provided significant numbers of new Information Technology 21-standard computer work stations to our ships.
- We are joining with the fleets and systems commands to improve the integration of combat systems on our ships.
As a result of asking for ways to improve and then acting promptly on these concerns, we've created a spirit on the waterfront that things are getting better. And, quite frankly—many things are getting better.
Current programs are more exciting and relevant to the joint war fighting strategy than ever before. Deployed readiness is excellent. We have a solid modernization plan with the DD-21 and LPD-17 programs. The mine countermeasures force has been modernized, successfully deployed, and really can find and neutralize mines. Theater ballistic missile defense will join surface strike and expeditionary warfare as national assets to complement carrier aviation. The area air defense commander capability and the cooperative engagement capability are in our near-term future. Today's sailors are as good as—or better—than ever. Today's officers are well-rounded war fighters and are sought for key billets and for duty on joint staffs. In the Surface Warfare Community, we have the best overall opportunity for command, war colleges, postgraduate education, and joint jobs. The new weapon and information systems being developed today are as impressive as the Aegis program was 20 years ago and they further open the door to the joint warfighting arena. We are building momentum.
We stand in danger, however, of losing what we've gained. Significant challenges confront us, even as we face serious fiscal limitations. With the Cold War won, the American people want a peace dividend, to be used in reshaping our nation's ability to compete in the future global economy. And much work still needs to be done in modernizing our nation's infrastructure. This doesn't mean that our Navy leadership isn't fighting for more resources and isn't concerned about readiness. It means the nation has decided it needs less of a Navy but needs the Navy no less.
From these challenges come enormous opportunities. As we innovate to stay within our means, we must improve the way we do business and refocus on warfighting skills. We have no other option, or we risk losing combat readiness. When our sailors are given the green light to innovate and leadership assumes more risk, the answers to these challenges will come from the deckplates.
The Yorktown (CG-48), our prototype smart-technology ship, is a great example. After a modest investment in technology, the ship's sailors' and officers' guidance was, "think and act out of the box to improve combat readiness and crew quality of life while operating safely." The crew helped design new systems. The results were impressive. Combat readiness was certified, their retention rate leads fleet averages—and their working day ends at a reasonable hour. Destroyer Squadron 18 picked up the challenge and applied the lessons learned from the Yorktown to its ships without benefit of major smart-technology improvements. The ships in that squadron just completed a "group sail," accomplishing three months of basic training in just five weeks under way, and came back combat ready and smiling. The Afloat Training Group played an integral role in that success story. The innovative group sail did things differently—and better. These positive lessons are now being exported to other squadrons and other ship types, including amphibious and logistic ships.
To maintain or improve our combat readiness in this environment, we must create an atmosphere where positive change is rewarded and leadership willingly accepts prudent risk. We can't lose our discipline or compromise our traditional chain of command, but we must create a climate where change is possible. We must create incentives to encourage prudent risk taking and innovation and disincentives to drive out "zero defect" mentality and other factors that discourage innovation.
We can make life better for our sailors while improving our combat readiness even in this resource-constrained environment. That's the big lesson from our smart technology ship and destroyer squadron initiatives. Again, the best ideas and answers are to be found on the waterfront, with our ships and crews. They must be unshackled. Our leadership afloat needs to lead the way to make things better, both inside and outside the lifelines. We all have much to do, starting with simple things on the shipboard level—from the process for issuing consumables to the way we do long- and short-range planning. It extends to the decisions senior officers make in tasking our ships administratively. All of us mean well, and taken individually, these taskings make sense—but in the aggregate, we are sinking our ships with administrative burdens and robbing them of time to train and practice warrior skills.
As warriors, we must listen to our deckplate sailors and be prepared to lead the way. We'll never have a better opportunity to innovate or shape the future. We not only can do differently with less, we can do better!
Vice Admiral Giffin is Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.