“Over the last year, we were on station in the Pacific to deal with provocative North Korean actions,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert wrote in his foreword to the Navy Program Guide 2014. “We patrolled off the shores of Syria, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan to protect American lives, hunt violent extremists, and induce regional leaders to make constructive choices amid widespread disorder. We delivered aid and relieved suffering in the Philippines in the wake of a devastating typhoon. We mobilized to restrain coercion against our allies and friends in the East and South China Seas. We kept piracy at bay in the Horn of Africa,” he continued. “We projected long-range combat power from aircraft carriers in the North Arabian Sea into Afghanistan, and arrayed our forces to enhance stability in the Arabian Gulf. Across the Middle East and Africa, we took the fight to insurgents, terrorists, and their supporting networks by providing high leverage expeditionary support to Special Operations Forces.”
The past year also underscored the challenge of doing more with less, in some cases potentially much less. While the deepest cuts attendant with the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and sequestration might have been avoided, the Fiscal Year 2015 and near-term future budgets do not generate optimism. After years of debate and controversy, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in February 2014 announced a significant redirection for the USS Freedom (LCS-1) and Independence (LCS-2) Littoral Combat Ship program, from 52 to perhaps only as many as 32 ships. Eleven Ticonderoga-class Aegis guided-missile cruisers look to be put in “reduced operating status,” which will likely mean they will never go to sea, again—unless scarce resources are found to modernize them. The President’s 2015 budget also put in limbo the multi-billion-dollar refueling/overhaul of the USS George Washington (CVN-73), which, not carried out, will de facto reduce the nation’s aircraft-carrier force to ten ships for as far forward as can be seen.
The combination of sequester and lack of a new budget for half of the fiscal year resulted in severe reductions in readiness and upgrades, and training across the board was cut back. While the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 bought back some additional resources for Navy budgets, digging out of this fiscal hole will still take time. “We’re tapped out,” Admiral Greenert told Congress in November when describing sequestration’s effect on Navy planning and programming.
Life is what happens as we go about making plans. The rebalance or “pivot” of the U.S. defense posture to the Asia/Pacific region continued apace this past year. The Navy expects that the total ships deployed to the area will increase from about 52 in 2014 to about 65 by 2020. This will be felt at home, too, as the Navy continues to homeport 60 percent of its ships on the U.S. west coast and “bases and places” in the Pacific by 2020. However, events of the past year also underscored the reality that the Navy must remain capable of decisive action in more traditional regional orientations, too.
With CVN-73 possibly on the block next year, it was ironic that the carrier was in the van of the U.S. response to Typhoon Haiyan that devastated Tacloban and more than 40 Philippines provinces on 8–9 November. “As an expression of hard power, they don’t come bigger or more fearsome than the USS George Washington,” CNN explained.
But as an expression of soft-power, the Nimitz-class carrier is finding its influence in its Asian theater of operations goes far beyond the range of its fearsome arsenal as it assists . . . Operation Damayan. . . . The projection of U.S. power on the world stage, especially in the context of a humanitarian disaster such as Haiyann, represents a public relations goldmine for the U.S. military.” The strike group included nine ships, 23 helicopters, and 7,000 personnel, forward and ready to carry out relief missions, while keeping warfighting first.
The U.S. military soon sent another 900 personnel to support Haiyan relief efforts under the command of Joint Task Force 505. Marines and sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked on two amphibious ships, the USS Germantown (LSD-42) and Ashland (LSD-48), and were committed to Operation Damayan, which means “lend a helping hand” in Filipino. Land-based P-3 Orion aircraft helped to coordinate search-and-rescue operations. Ship- and land-based MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft and SH-60 Seahawk helicopters shuttled relief and medical supplies and people.
The storm killed more than 10,000 Filipinos, affected another 11 million and destroyed some 150,000 homes––with more than 670,000 people displaced. All told, more than 13,400 U.S. military personnel, 66 aircraft, and 12 ships evacuated more than 21,000 people from typhoon-impacted areas, delivered more than 2,500 tons of relief supplies, operated airfields, and purified water. U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines Philip S. Goldberg remarked, “What the Navy and Marine Corps team has done here is help bring peace of mind with your presence in the area. Our partnership with the government of the Philippines shows we are here with them during a difficult time. I couldn’t be more proud of your ability to respond when called.”
Half a world away, President Barack Obama’s “bold red line in the sand” seemed to have had little impact on Syria’s intent on wiping out any opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime. “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” President Obama said on 20 August 2012. “That would change my calculus.”
The 21 August 2013 chemical-weapons attack that killed some 1,400 Syrians—primarily old men, women, and children––changed the calculus and catalyzed international opprobrium, or at least rhetoric. As the U.S. Congress debated the use of deadly force against Syrian chemical-weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, by September the Navy positioned five Aegis guided-missile destroyers––the USS Barry (DDG-52), Gravely (DDG-107), Mahan (DDG-72), Ramage (DDG-61), and Stout (DDG-55)––armed with long-range precision-strike Tomahawk cruise missiles and surface-to-air Standard missiles, the amphibious warship USS San Antonio (LPD-17) armed with Marines, and perhaps as many as four attack submarines (SSNs and SSGNs) also loaded out with Tomahawks. The USS Nimitz battle group––including the USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) and Stockdale (DDG-106)––was also in the region. But the Senate made sure there would be no “boots on the ground” this time.
The deployment of U.S. and partner navies’ warships was matched by several Russian warships, with President Vladimir Putin promising the naval presence was needed only to protect national security interests and was not a threat to any nation. The heightened U.S. naval presence off Syria was sustained until late October, when only three destroyers remained on station. But the killings continued through early spring 2014, with more than 140,000 Syrian deaths since the civil war began in March 2011.
The Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) and Maritime Administration (MARAD) found themselves at the fulcrum of Syrian compliance to destroy its chemical weapons and facilities under a deal brokered by the United States and Russia, according to BBC News Middle East. Although Syria destroyed manufacturing capabilities by the late fall last year, the Assad regime reportedly had more than 1,300 tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin, and VX and their precursor ingredients, to be destroyed. The multinational mission to do so was due to be completed by 30 June 2014.
The MV Cape Ray (T-AKR-9679) is a MARAD Ready Reserve Force ship operated by the MSC. In 2013, the ship was outfitted with two $5 million mobile hydrolysis systems to destroy the majority of the “priority” toxic substances. The concept of operations would see chemical agents transferred to the ship while in port and subsequently destroyed while in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, protected by Russian ships. In addition to the ship’s normal civilian-mariner crew and extra security personnel, more than 60 technician-specialists from the Army’s Edgewood (Maryland) Chemical Biological Center were to run the hydrolysis systems. The effluent from the Cape Ray and the other chemicals removed from Syria will be destroyed at commercial facilities.
Or so that was the plan. On 13 February the Cape Ray arrived at Rota, Spain, and three weeks later at a 5 March meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels called in response to Putin’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, NATO announced it was suspending collaboration with Russia in several areas, including Russian maritime escort for the Cape Ray.
Black Sea Ops
With concerns increasing about possible attacks from the land or the sea targeting the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Navy deployed two warships, the command-and-control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20) and the guided-missile frigate USS Taylor (FFG-50), for Black Sea duties. ABC News reported that U.S. defense officials emphasized the ships were deploying as part of “routine operations,” although they could be made available to assist the State Department in response to terrorist attacks. The ships were positioned 20 miles off the coast of Sochi in international waters, but repeatedly moved closer to the Sochi coastline, “boring holes” outside Russia’s 12-mile territorial sea.
Much was made of how the ships could be used to evacuate Americans from Sochi in an emergency situation—“relatively small vessels equipped with helipads capable of accommodating small helicopters”––while other observers noted that a large-deck air-capable amphibious warship with special-purpose Marine air-ground task force troops would have sent a stronger signal about U.S. interest in a terrorism-free two weeks. Halfway there, the MSC’s joint high-speed vessel USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) “was standing by [in the eastern Mediterranean] to evacuate folks, if needed,” Admiral Greenert noted during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on 26 March. “That’s called noncombatant evacuation. It could take 1,200 people. We just needed life preservers.”
As the games drew to a close without major incidents on snow or ice, on 12 February the Taylor ran aground while trying to berth at the Turkish port of Samsun to take on fuel. The Navy quickly relieved the warship’s captain, Commander Dennis Volpe, due to “loss of confidence in his ability to command.” Initial surveys determined that there was some damage to the propeller blades, but no damage to the hull.
Another routine U.S. deployment to the Black Sea in early March had ominous implications. As the Ukraine and Crimea crisis wore on, the passage of the Aegis destroyer USS Truxtun (DDG-103) through the Dardanelles was “clear evidence” that the United States was “ramping up its military presence in the region,” according to Russian news outlets cited by Military.com. The Russian government’s RT Network reported that the “American battleship is highly unlikely to get anywhere near the Crimea shores, let alone Sevastopol, without a risk of repeating a hasty exit.” DOD spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby explained the Navy had scheduled the Truxtun’s movement into the Black Sea well before Russia sent troops into Crimea, and the destroyer was scheduled to participate in planned joint exercises with the Bulgarian and Romanian navies.
The potential standoff brought to mind the Operation Assured Delivery deployment of the USCGC Dallas (WHEC-716) and the Aegis destroyer USS McFaul (DDG-74) to the Georgian port of Batumi during an eerily familiar 2008 crisis, to show the flag, underscore U.S. interest in a peaceful resolution, and deliver humanitarian assistance. Somehow, the Truxtun’s showing the flag in Odessa in early 2014 did not seem to be in the cards. Indeed, various accounts had Russia “welcoming” the U.S. destroyer to the Black Sea by ordering two warships back from the eastern Mediterranean and deploying land-based SS-N-26 “Bastion” antiship missile systems from the Russian town of Anapa, Krasnodar, to Sevastopol.
The Spirit of the Mission
“Good night—Malaysian three seven zero,” Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370’s co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid radioed in the early morning of 8 March. Then nothing. As this article was written, authorities from 26 countries had expanded the search to more than 30 million square miles, over land as well as sea, for the mystery Boeing 777-200ER aircraft that simply disappeared from radar tracking, with 239 passengers and crew members on board. Satellite and telecommunications data ultimately allowed the search to be narrowed to an area the size of Alaska, about 1,600 nautical miles west of Australia. In all, more than 40 ships and some 60 aircraft were committed to the search-and-rescue mission. From the start “rescue” seemed to be out of reach, however much it was prayed for.
The Navy ordered the Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyers USS Pinckney (DDG-91) and Kidd (DDG-100) to the search efforts. The USNS John Ericsson (T-AO-194) provided underway fuel and logistics replenishment, ensuring the ships and their helicopters could maximize time on station. (The Pinckney was soon redirected to Singapore for routine maintenance, leaving the Kidd to search the Strait of Malacca and Andaman Sea.) Each destroyer embarked two multi-mission MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, which can fly a maximum of 180 knots with a ceiling of 13,000 feet, and have a maximum range of 245 nautical miles and the capability to conduct searches at night using a forward-looking infrared camera.
“Our helicopters are an extension of the ship’s capabilities and provide us with the best chance of finding airplane debris,” said Lieutenant (junior grade) Eric Bachtel, the Kidd’s combat-information-center officer on 10 March. “With extra watch standers in place, we are able to comb through any debris spotted from the ship or the aircraft and if needed retrieve the objects via grappling hook, small boats, or with our search-and-rescue swimmers deployed from the ship or helicopters.”
The Navy initially had one maritime-patrol aircraft, a P-3C Orion from the Grey Knights of Patrol Squadron 46, on station flying from Subang Jaya, Malaysia. That was soon augmented by a P-8A Poseidon—“Rescue 74”—assigned to the Patrol Squadron (VP) 16 War Eagles, operating out of Kuala Lumpur. “If it is under the plane, we’ll see it,” Lieutenant Commander Mike Trumbull, one of two tactical coordinators overseeing a search mission, said in a Wall Street Journal article. “It’s pretty hard to miss something with all these pairs of ‘eyes’.”
On 18 March, the Kidd ended her search ops, the P-3C moved to a base in Phuket, Thailand, and the P-8A pivoted to Perth, Australia. On 25 March, the Malaysian government declared the aircraft went down in a remote section of the Indian Ocean, changing the mission from rescue to recovery of the “black boxes” to determine what actually happened and when.
“The crew bought into this mission right from the start,” Commander T. J. Zerr, the Kidd’s executive officer, explained to The Washington Post. “For all of us on board, if one of our family members were on that plane, we would hope that anyone with the capabilities of our ships and aircraft would give anything they have to find it. That’s the spirit we’ve gone into this mission with.”
“Our nations continue to work closely together, both bilaterally and through NATO, in response to ballistic missile threats,” Secretary Hagel said during a January visit to Poland, according to Defense News. Highlighting an overarching Eastern European ballistic-missile defense (BMD) posture dubbed “Aegis Ashore,” Hagel underscored U.S. resolve: “The United States is firmly committed to deploying a U.S. missile defense system to Poland. We look forward to this system coming online in 2018 as part of . . . the European Phased Adaptive Approach.”
The Navy and the Missile Defense Agency have been building two Aegis Ashore installations, with a third in the plans. The first was completed in 2013 at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii––and has already supported tests. The second unit is destined for Romania, where in October a groundbreaking ceremony was held at Deveselu Air Base. The Romanian facility will be operational in 2015 and the second site in Poland in 2018. Russia’s outright annexation of Crimea or other land-grabs of former Soviet-bloc countries, however, could accelerate this time line.
The Aegis Ashore Standard Missile SM-3 surface-to-space missile sites and Aegis fire-control complex will be linked to a BMD radar site in Turkey and a command-and-control center in Germany to provide NATO with an initial territorial BMD. According to the CNO’s Navy Program Guide 2014, Aegis Ashore will also link to four Aegis BMD destroyers permanently deployed to the Mediterranean, operating out of Rota, Spain. The first ship, the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), arrived in Rota on 11 February, and the Ross (DDG-71) will follow later this year. The USS Carney (DDG-64) and Porter (DDG-78) will arrive in 2015.
In early 2014, 74 U.S. Navy Aegis warships––22 cruisers and 52 destroyers––were in service; of those, 25 destroyers and 5 cruisers were fitted with various “baselines” of BMD capabilities. More are on the way. In 2008, Aegis was the first element of the national BMD system to be declared operational, suitable, and effective by the director, Operational Test and Evaluation. Test successes have continued.
Aegis BMD Put to the Test
On 18 September 2013, the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG-70), fitted with the improved Aegis BMD 4.0 system, succeeded on the first attempt to engage a sophisticated, separating short-range ballistic-missile target with two SM-3 Block IB missiles that were launched and guided almost simultaneously. The test stressed the ability of the Aegis BMD and the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) weapon systems to function in a layered-defense architecture and defeat a raid of two near-simultaneous medium-range ballistic-missile targets. Along with overhead space assets providing launch alerts, a Transportable Radar Surveillance and Control (TPY-2) radar in forward-based mode detected the targets and relayed track information to the command-and-control system for further transmission to defending Navy and Army BMD assets.
The USS Decatur (DDG-73) detected and tracked the first target, developed a fire-control solution, launched an SM-3 Block IA missile, and successfully intercepted the target. The THAAD 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment Alpha Battery successfully intercepted the second medium-range ballistic-missile target. As a planned demonstration of THAAD’s layered defense capabilities, the battery launched a second interceptor at the target destroyed by Aegis as a contingency in the event the SM-3 did not achieve an intercept.
Two weeks later, on 4 October, the Lake Erie launched a single SM-3 Block IB missile that shot down a short-range ballistic-missile target outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. This was a kinetic “hit-to-kill” shot with the SM-3 warhead destroying the target. This test exercised the latest version of the second-generation Aegis BMD system, capable of engaging longer-range and more sophisticated ballistic missiles, and was the fifth consecutive successful intercept test of the SM-3 Block IB guided missile with the Aegis BMD 4.0 weapon system. More broadly, the October shot was the 28th successful intercept in 34 flight-test attempts since 2002 for the Navy’s Aegis/SPY-1 BMD system—unprecedented in tests of BMD systems
The Navy last year also demonstrated the Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) capability, Aegis Baseline 9, which enables a single warship to provide simultaneous antiair (aircraft and cruise missile) and BMD protection—a significant operational improvement. IAMD rests on the Baseline 9 SPY-1 radar’s multi-mission signal processor that takes advantage of the latest commercial-off-the-shelf technology for the Navy’s in-service cruisers and destroyers, as well as new-construction destroyers.
In April 2013, the Navy successfully tested the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air capability at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and in August on board the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) off the coast of Point Mugu, California. Aegis used the cooperative-engagement capability to interpret data from remote sources and launched an advanced SM-6 missile to intercept the targets. In addition to demonstrating the ability to adapt to threats and address a dynamic defense landscape, the first live-firing test validated the system’s ability to defend beyond its line of sight by integrating data from a remote sensor to track and intercept a target.
Three months later, however, on 16 November, the Chancellorsville suffered a “drone strike” during a Combat System Ship Qualification Trials (CSSQT) off Point Mugu––not a live-fire event. The CSSQT was to assess the installation of the ship’s Baseline 9 Aegis combat system, with the drone remotely piloted to pass no closer than a couple of miles from the ship. Instead, a communications error caused the BQM-74E “Chukar III” target drone to “go rogue” and punch a three-foot hole in the superstructure, resulting in “minor injuries to two sailors,” according to Navy officials. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Rick Chernitzer said, “The computer room on the port side . . . was heavily damaged by the impact of the test target at the Point Mugu range.” Navy Times reported that “the preliminary estimated cost to repair the ship is approximately $30 million.” The cruiser’s combat information center was notified some four seconds before impact that controllers at Point Mugu had lost contact with the drone, and the ship had little time to react. The Navy did not confirm if the ship’s crew attempted to employ self-defense systems to protect the ship, but other sources indicated that the crew did employ the ship’s Phalanx Mk-15 close-in weapon system, without success.
In the end, however, it came as something of a surprise when Secretary Hagel announced in February that 11 Aegis cruisers would be put in reduced-operating status until––perhaps only if—funds come available to complete BMD and other cruiser-modernization upgrades.
Despite budget uncertainties and political chaos, the Navy continues to deploy several new and innovative ship and aircraft types. During the past year, the service deployed the first littoral combat ship to Singapore for an operational shakedown; took delivery of the first mobile landing platform (MLP); fleshed out concepts of operation for the joint high-speed vessel (JHSV); and continued experimenting, learning and adapting to the afloat forward staging base. The new types of ships are in addition to the service’s groundbreaking work in conducting the first-ever landing of an unmanned vehicle on an aircraft carrier and laying out detailed plans to conduct the first shipboard experiments using a prototype laser weapon. Not a bad year for innovation at all. As Admiral Greenert told the Surface Navy Association’s annual gathering in January, “We’ve got to integrate and embrace these new ships that are coming in and make them work.”
Recognizing some highly publicized issues with regard its engines and steering system and learning the most optimum maintenance intervals for the Freedom, the ship nevertheless conducted a ten-month deployment to Singapore and the Pacific that must be considered, from an overall perspective, as highly successful. She exercised with navies from Singapore, the Philippines, India, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. And she learned hard lessons on how to pre-stage spares and other equipment overseas and in what quantities, insight that will be important for subsequent LCS deployments. The Freedom swapped out complete crews while deployed—another first. Navy leaders should be congratulated for boldly pushing the ship overseas to accelerate the Fleet’s learning process and quickly surface operational issues, e.g., optimum (as opposed to minimal) crew size and set a precedent on how to conduct real and meaningful testing outside the Pentagon’s increasingly costly and bureaucratically rigid test-and-evaluation processes. The Freedom’s sister ship, the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3), in 2014 will deploy to Singapore for a more stressing 16 months that will require three crew swaps, Vice Admiral Thomas Copeman, commander, Naval Surface Forces, told Navy Times.
The second LCS variant, the USS Independence (LCS-2), homeported in San Diego, has also been active through the past year, having been designated the lead test ship for the important mine-countermeasures (MCM) mission module that is destined for deployment across both LCS classes. While technically not considered under deployment, the Independence is nevertheless expected to be under way for a considerable period of time—six months or more—to conduct MCM test and evaluation.
MLP and JHSV
The MLP and JHSV are two other non-traditional types of ships that have entered the Fleet over the past year. The Navy accepted the USNS Montford Point (MLP-1) in March 2013 as the first mobile landing platform. Built by General Dynamics’ NASSCO yard, the Montford Point is an unusual ship, at least by Navy standards. She can take on ballast so that the large center section of the ship submerges, which then allows as many as three landing-craft air-cushion vehicles to dock to take on outsized cargo in the open ocean. The MLP concept holds the potential to dramatically change how ship-to-shore maneuver is conducted in the future. Both Admiral Greenert and Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos have publically talked about using the vessels in new ways, including special operations, LCS MCM ops, and whether the ship can support MV-22 Osprey and even F-35B Lightning II aircraft in a “lily pad” role. The MV-22 has already demonstrated its value in humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief operations, which the Navy is being more frequently called on to conduct. The MLPs will be operated by the Military Sealift Command and crewed by civil mariners, which will increase the time these ships can be deployed overseas. The Montford Point conducted her inspection and survey in early fall 2013 and subsequently was undergoing final outfitting in Oregon.
JHSVs will continue to enter the Fleet in force during the next few years. Ten of these ships are being built in rapid succession by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, although on 26 March the CNO indicated that more might be in the offing. “That need may grow,” he told the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. “But it was built for predominantly high-speed logistics. It can do so much more. It can do counterpiracy, counterterrorism, theater security cooperation, and things we don’t even know yet.”
The USNS Spearhead spent most of 2013 undergoing testing and trials while based at Little Creek, Virginia. In the early spring of 2014, the Spearhead was operating in the Mediterranean to support U.S. 6th Fleet operations off the North African coast and in the Gulf of Guinea––as well as standby if needed at the Olympics. The ship will then transit for additional work in Latin America to support U.S. 4th Fleet missions later in 2014. All of the JHSVs will be operated by MSC and will be crewed by civil mariners, using the same setup as the MLP ships. Navy and Marine officials envision the boats conducting counter-piracy operations, humanitarian-assistance/disaster response, and other engagement missions. Navy officials have even posited that a later version of JHSV will serve as a demonstration platform for directed-energy weapons in the 2016 time frame, Admiral Greenert told the Surface Navy Association audience in January.
Naval aviation made history last year—twice—for the takeoff and landing of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) on the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77). The unmanned system successfully mastered the takeoff from the carrier’s flight deck on 15 May, but on-board computers aborted a landing when they detected an anomaly and redirected to shore. Capturing the historic significance of the event, Rear Admiral Matt Winter, program executive officer, Unmanned Systems, said “it’s one small step for man, and one significant technical step for unmanned kind.”
In later tests in July, also using the Bush, the UCAS successfully managed two out of three carrier landings. The X-47D then carried out an additional takeoff-and-landing demonstration in November with the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) after the program was reassessed for continuation. Original Navy plans called for dumping the two test vehicles as “museum pieces” after they demonstrated the ability to take off and land autonomously aboard a carrier. Pressure from many quarters, including Congress, resulted in Navy aviation officials opting to retain the prototypes as test systems at least through 2014.
“He works in the Defense Department,” a Veterans Affairs doctor wrote on 23 August 2013, “so no problem there.” He had just examined defense contractor and former Navy Reservist Aaron Alexis for insomnia, but found little cause for worry. Turns out, Alexis lied about virtually everything during the exam: He said was taking no drugs; he denied any pain and anxiety; no, he wasn’t under stress and had no shortness of breath; he had no suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
On 7 August, Alexis told Newport, Rhode Island, police that disembodied voices were harassing him at his hotel, using microwaves to keep him awake. The police informed the Navy, which informed his employer, The Experts, a subcontractor of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services, which pulled his access to secret material for two days before reinstating it.
Later it would be known that in 2004 Alexis was arrested, charged with malicious mischief in Seattle, Washington, for shooting out the tires of a vehicle, and six years later was arrested again in Fort Worth, Texas, for shooting into an apartment. And there were several other “anger-management” slips.
Clearly, the “dots” had not been connected.
Just after 0800 on the morning of 16 September, Alexis walked through the main entrance of Washington Navy Yard Building 197 carrying a bundle that aroused no concern. After all, his access badges were in order and his secret clearance up to date. It was the busiest time of morning, with several thousand workers returning from the weekend. He took the elevator to the fourth floor where in a restroom he fixed and loaded a shotgun that he had bought two days earlier. Then he went on a rampage, killing 12 Navy civilians and contractors before a D.C. Police first-responder took him out. Two more Navy civilians and a police officer were wounded in the mayhem.
First-responders from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department were on-scene within seven minutes of the first 911 calls going out. But the shootings and killings continued in the confusion that lasted nearly an hour. Were there two shooters? Where were they? Or was there really only one, randomly shooting at anyone he encountered? Finally, after a third-floor gunfight that lasted about 30 minutes and although officer Dorian DeSantis was hit in the chest, his protective vest saving his life, he managed to fire a round that struck Alexis in the head, killing him instantly.
“We still don’t know all the facts,” President Obama said later that day, “but we do know that several people have been shot, and some have been killed,” he said. “So we are confronting yet another mass shooting––and today, it happened on a military installation in our nation’s capital. It’s a shooting that targeted our military and civilian personnel. These are men and women who were going to work, doing their job, protecting all of us,” he added. “They’re patriots, and they know the dangers of serving abroad––but today, they faced unimaginable violence that they wouldn’t have expected here at home.”
“The Navy family today suffered a horrific attack,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said from a D.C. hospital where three victims were being treated. “The civilians that work in the Navy and do the critical work that has to be done suffered just a stunning and horrific blow.” The next day, Secretary Hagel commemorated the victims, laying a wreath at the Navy Memorial, and on 22 September the President attended a memorial service for the victims and their families.
In a February 2014 ceremony, two D.C. Police Department officers were honored for their devotion to duty during the shooting, according to The Washington Post. Officer Scott Williams led one of the initial active-shooter response teams and was hit numerous times in the legs. He and Officer DeSantis, who killed Alexis, received the Medal of Valor, Medal of Honor, and Blue Badge Medal. The department also honored U.S. Park Police officers Andrew Won and Carol Hiott for providing cover and engaging Alexis during the final exchange. And Park Police helicopter pilot Sergeant Kenneth Burchell and his two crew members, Sergeant David Tolson and Officer Michael Abate, were honored for their heroic rescue of injured civilians from the roof of Building 197.
On 18 March Secretary Mabus released the findings of the Navy Department’s investigation surrounding the shootings. Led by Admiral John Richardson, the investigation team focused on the prior military and employment history of the shooter, the events that day, and post-incident response. The team also assessed how well the Department of the Navy implemented programs and policies designed to safeguard people and protect mission capabilities, coming to three primary conclusions:
• First, the direct cause was an insider threat, Aaron Alexis, who used valid credentials to enter the Washington Navy Yard.
• Second, prior to the event, Alexis’ employer, The Experts, and employees of the prime contractor, HP Enterprise Services, became aware that Alexis was behaving in a way that raised concerns about his mental stability. Neither The Experts nor HP Enterprises reported this information to the government.
• Third, the investigation found that Naval Station, local and federal law enforcement agencies responded to the emergency calls with 100% dedication to safeguarding Washington Navy Yard personnel.
However, Secretary Hagel acknowledged critical shortcomings and missed opportunities for intervention. “The reviews identified troubling gaps in the Department of Defense’s ability to detect, prevent and respond to instances where someone working with us decides to inflict harm on this institution and its people,” The Washington Post reported him saying.
While the Navy Yard reopened on 19 September, Building 197 has remained closed, with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) employees working in the former U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in the Transpoint Building, dubbed “WNY-West.” The Navy in February 2014 announced that it was going to rename it the Joshua Humphreys Building, after the designer of the U.S. Navy’s first six frigates authorized in 1794. “Like Humphreys’ frigates,” Vice Admiral William Hilarides, NAVSEA commander, noted, “NAVSEA is resilient and still afloat in spite of the events of 16 September.” Indeed, one of Humphreys’ frigates, the USS Constitution—“Old Ironsides”—remains on the Navy List. “I feel this is a critical step toward establishing a new sense of place as we return to the Navy Yard next year,” he added. After a complete renovation, the Humphreys Building is scheduled to reopen for business in February 2015. But it will never again be business as usual.
“One-hundred four ships (36 percent of the Navy) are deployed around the globe protecting the nation’s interests,” Admiral Greenert noted during 12 March testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. “This is our mandate: to be where it matters, when it matters.”
Events during the past year underscored the Navy’s ability to do just that, if increasingly at a stretch. Should sequestration-driven austerity remain in place, however, doubts are growing about the service’s future. “Over the past few years, continuing global demand for naval forces coupled with reduced resources has strained the force,” he acknowledged. “I remain deeply concerned that returning to BCA revised caps spending levels in FY 2016 will lead to a Navy that would be too small and lacking in the advanced and asymmetric capabilities needed to conduct the primary missions required by our current guidance.”
And next year’s “U.S. Navy in Review” could be a much shorter read, too.
Dr. Truver is TeamBlue director. The authors relied on numerous open-source print and electronic materials for this article.