The discussion regarding the recent collisions of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and the John S. McCain (DDG-56) has moved beyond “how could this have happened” asked at a micro-level to the same question at a macro-level. Concerned perhaps with public perception, the Navy has leaped forward in drawing conclusions in a way that would, under other circumstances, be considered unseemly. Already a fleet commander has been relieved. Two investigations and two operational pauses have been ordered.
This furious activity is taking place while the investigation into what happened in the John S. McCain is barely started and before the Fitzgerald investigation has been released to the public. This suggests that key issues are already so evident there is no need to wait for the conclusions of unit-level investigations. It would appear the Navy’s leadership has decided these collisions were not simply two disconnected lightning bolts of bad luck striking Seventh Fleet.
The media is afire with experts, many of whom are former senior naval officers, all of whom are drawing conclusions. If they all know, then certainly current Navy leaders must also know the following:
► Training is (and has been) deficient for surface ships’ officers and crews for at least 15 years.
► The operational tempo (OpTempo) imposed on surface ships steadily is increasing, owing to a combination of declining fleet size; mission creep; diminishing average, unit-by-unit capability, as the littoral combat ships (LCS) come on line; increased tension in the Asian theater; and a relentless and steady demand for ships from combatant commanders.
► Ships home-ported in Japan are subject to a different standard from ships based in the United States.
Simply put, through no fault of their own, ships’ crews are stretched far too thin, and they are insufficiently trained, top to bottom. What has not been discussed, but which should be significantly more concerning, is the fact that if ships’ officers are not up to the fundamental task of safe navigation, how can they possibly be up to the task of complex warfighting?
While everyone suddenly seems familiar with these issues – at least enough to vault over process directly to the firing of a vice admiral – the element that has so far eluded discussion is the material condition of these ships. To understand the inexplicable fact that, every day, ships are operating in the most extraordinarily suboptimized ways, several factors need to be understood.
Individual-level training for both officers and enlisted personnel has been gutted. Testing and other performance-related standards were eliminated to improve throughput, reduce attrition, and make seniors happy. Follow-on training such as Communications and Engineer Officer of the Watch Schools were eliminated for new accession officers. B Double E and similar training were reduced for new accession enlisted personnel. As a result, new accessions showed up on ships not ready to be productive. Officer career paths were changed to the detriment of readiness, with long stretches ashore to meet other requirements like postgraduate degrees, joint credit, individual argumentations, Washington-time, etc…. At the same time, we combined executive officer (XO) and commanding officer (CO) training to the detriment of both, and Command Qualification Boards were pushed back for XO tours when officers already had been selected for command. Enlisted journeyman and master-level training (both formal schoolhouse training and informal in jobs such as shore intermediate maintenance activities [SIMAs]) was shredded. Senior officers and enlisted personnel no longer can make up for the shortfalls elsewhere because they increasingly don’t know their jobs either. General military training (GMT) and other similar requirements have exploded to the detriment of shipboard training programs.
Manning initiatives such as “perform to serve,” “top six rolldown,” and others decimated journeyman-level manning and expertise (and morale) across the force.
On the maintenance side, depot-level maintenance periods were decreased. Intermediate maintenance activity (IMA) periods were reduced; lifecycle maintenance requirements such as corrosion control, vibration monitoring, and other periodic and condition-based maintenance—were reduced or eliminated. SIMAs were eliminated or cut, to include ship-to-shop capabilities like valve barges. Level II (IMA) work was transferred to the ships’ crews, causing huge maintenance backlogs and untenable ship’s force worklists. Operational propulsion plant examinations, light-off assessments, and configuration status accountings were eliminated in favor of “death by a thousand cuts” from afloat training groups, with no forcing factors to ensure discrepancies were repaired in a timely manner.
Maintenance funding was taken from ships in maintenance and doled out to ships scheduled for inspection-and-surveys (InSurvs). The supply system and systems commands failed to plan for obsolescence and stopped paying for many replacement parts. At the same time, ships’ on-board stocks of replacement parts were reduced. As a result, casualty reports skyrocketed, and ships’ ability to be self-sufficient has disappeared. Funding for tech reps was curtailed or eliminated in favor of “distance support.”
The number one factor, though, is money. As a percentage of the Navy’s budget, funding for parts and repairs remains fairly static. Here’s the problem for the surface force: Neither naval aviation nor the submarine force will agree to operate without fully funded maintenance coffers. They—especially submariners—simply won’t. The reasons seem obvious. While a ship can be almost completely broken and still get under way, the cost of mechanical failure in a submarine can be catastrophic. Because the budget is flat and the fleet is aging, the community-by-community demand for maintenance funds rises against a fixed-size pie. The result is that if you hold the maintenance budget for submarines constant, or even increase it, the surface ships’ segment of the pie decreases.
All these things were pointedly discussed in the Balisle Report. This all begs the question of why nothing was done to remediate the problems. The problem is maintenance has no constituency. There are three agencies at work here: Congress, the defense industry, and the Navy. Congressman Tip O’Neil said, “All Politics is Local.” If military programs don’t provide local jobs, they are not of interest to our elected representatives in Washington. This is increasingly true in today’s charged, partisan environment. Maintenance has very little pay-off to elected officials. On the other hand, building new things, like submarines or aircraft carriers or new missiles or radars or aircraft, means jobs—i.e., votes. The net result is that Congress has no energy to increase funding for maintenance, especially if it comes at the cost of programs that provide local jobs.
The second element of this triad is industry. Anyone who imagines that the most important consideration in any publically traded company is not the stock price is laboring under a charming illusion. The profit margin for parts and labor associated with maintenance is trivial compared with while the margins for building big, new things. Just as Congress is not interested in fixing ships, neither is industry generally.
Finally, there is the Navy. Unfortunately, the needs of the fleet are many and varied. On the operational side of things, there is a cacophony of strident and competing voices, originating from a universe of different, competing interests. As it turns out, the various warfare communities of the Navy are set up in direct competition with one another in a mortal fight for funding. In this ugly competition, the surface community is the loser.
Whose fault is this? It’s mine and every other surface officer because we failed to say “no” we will not take these ships to sea until they are fixed and their crews are trained.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).