How the Navy’s current high operational tempo affects the near- and long-term health of ships and sailors is the subject of many speeches and studies. All of these issues are undoubtedly challenges in the face of sustained naval operations, but one significant factor lies quietly below surface: the ability to effectively fight in combat, suffer setbacks, and overcome them to win.
With the long list of training, operational, and administrative requirements and only a limited time to achieve them before the deploying, unit schedules are always full. And that does not account for the surprises, such as driving-under-the-influence arrests and broken equipment, which compress the schedules further.
Even with the transition to the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, schedules are so tight that a single failure of the predetermined time line leads to cascading catastrophic fleet-scheduling consequences across the world. Ships get extended on station; overhauls are shortened and diluted; and diminished quality of life hits our sailors. Essentially, a scenario has developed where the schedule is “too tight to fail.”
With the stakes so high for failing to have a ship ready on time for deployment, each organization involved in the process does everything possible to ensure that the ship is ready to deploy on time. For many this means long hours and intensive training. This environment also creates extra pressure on commands assigned to evaluate and certify units in the pre-deployment cycle. Perhaps a poor tactical decision is reevaluated or a standard is reinterpreted to ensure that a ship is not given a failure and thrown off her deployment timeline.
The evaluations gain a new level of subjectivity influenced by how that failure impacts the entire fleet. As subjectivity becomes more apparent, standards can begin to waiver. To counter the subjectivity, clear and understandable objectives are developed to become the new standard of evaluation. Eventually, those standardizations find their way to become carefully choreographed box-checking events.
The warfighting capabilities of our personnel and ships become more of a question of one’s ability to follow a script instead of reacting to the offensive and defensive actions of an enemy in battle. This process has allowed U.S. Navy ships to operate successfully in the currently peaceful seas. When matched against a capable adversary, however, many of these ships may not fare as well. Well before any combat, our forces must be trained in realistic combat scenarios. They should battle against units with comparable capabilities to potential adversaries and be allowed to battle for control of the sea with time to fail, recalibrate, and reattack.
If potential adversaries recognize realistic training is crucial to their development, the U.S. Navy is on even more dangerous footing. China has demonstrated a shift from an overly formal training environment, where operational forces were fearful of defeating national forces for the black mark it would put on one’s career, to authentic real-war conditions. The Chinese military’s drive to accept failure and learn from it shows a desire to have forces ready for the uncertainties of combat. (See “Chinese Navy Trains and Takes Risks,” May 2016 Proceedings.)
Future U.S. naval forces that go untested in variable and unscripted combat scenarios may learn very difficult lessons at the hands of a resilient enemy force.