On 1 October 2016, Yemeni rebels, firing antiship cruise missiles, attacked and wrecked the U.S.-owned high-speed logistic vessel Swift (HSV-2). The Swift, under lease to the United Arab Emirates at the time, was operating in the vicinity of the Bab-el-Mandeb—the strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden—and directly off the western coast of Yemen. In response to this attack, the USS Mason (DDG-87), USS Nitze (DDG-94), and the afloat forward-staging base USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) deployed to the area in a show of force.
Soon after the ships’ arrival on station, they were attacked two, possibly three, times by the same Iran-backed Houthi forces. On 9 October, the Mason detected two cruise missiles that impacted the water, short of their targets. Three days later, the Mason again detected the launch of land-based cruise missiles and responded first with countermeasures and then successfully engaged the threat with salvos of both Standard Missile-2s (SM-2s) and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSMs). Finally, on 15 October, the Mason again deployed countermeasures against two separate targets that appeared to be cruise missiles. The details of this third engagement remain unclear, though it appears no defensive missiles were fired by the Mason. This was the first successful “test” of the SM-2 in combat against a hostile antisurface cruise missile.
For live-fire engagements with a recognized enemy, the reportage on these events has been surprisingly thin and murky. Still, it is curious that in all of these events, the Nitze is not mentioned, except to say that she launched retaliatory Tomahawk strikes against Houthi radar sites on 13 October.
The murk clears only when it is understood that the Nitze did not detect the inbound cruise missiles on 9 or 12 October. Was this “blindness” the result of the failure of ship’s crewmembers to understand how to correctly configure their SPY air-search radar or failure of the CO to better frame the missile threat posed by the Houthis?
The SPY radar is a remarkable, reliable, and much-proved piece of equipment. Nevertheless, successful performance requires a genuine expertise on the part of many ship’s personnel, from the radar operator (RSC) to the combat systems coordinator (CSC, usually a chief or warrant officer) to the tactical action officer (TAO) to the commanding officer (CO). Ultimately, if the radar is “programmed” incorrectly, it will fail to detect legitimate targets. It takes many expert hands to ensure optimal radar operation.
When the Aegis combat system was new, an enormous amount of effort went into the training of ship’s crew in the intelligent and thoughtful employment of the system’s disparate elements, including and especially the SPY radar. For example, a fire controlman training to become an RSC went to school for literally years before standing the watch. A CO spent months in a school, pouring over tech pubs to fully understand the Aegis weapon system.
This is no longer the case. Training is expensive, and the surface force has incrementally replaced a great deal of schoolhouse training with either on-the-job training or, in the case of enlisted technicians, a reliance on “black-box replacement”—i.e., replacing parts until the system works.
Further evidence of this decline in capability is that the Navy now regularly deploys civilian technicians in many ships to ensure their combat management systems are maintained at suitable operational levels. The Mason had one civilian technician. Did the Nitze?
Has the Navy’s readiness declined to a point such that civilian technicians are an operational necessity? Should the fact that these technicians are, by and large, former sailors who came up in the “old days” of deep education suggest a problem with today’s training?
On 22 August, Admiral Scott Swift, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, dismissed Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin from command of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command." On Monday, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Philip Sawyer removed Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of Combined Task Force 70, and Captain Jeffery Bennett, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15, from their positions because of a loss of confidence in their ability to command.
Historically, commanders are not fired for operational incompetence, save collisions or groundings. The last admiral relieved of command for reasons other than poor ethical behavior, was Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and the U.S. Pacific Fleet, 75 years ago following the attack on Pearl Harbor. For a very long period, operational incompetence seems to have had no real cost.
In other words, these firings are completely anachronistic. The test will be whether they are histrionics for public consumption or if they signal a new trend.
As for the events off Yemen, they happened almost a year ago, after which the entire matter was held close by the Navy. This is not to say that a furious response did not take place behind the scenes. It did, and for good reason. Whether this event was an anomaly; whether the exact chain of events is complex and confusing; whether it can be expediently explained away or not—for an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer to fail in its flagship, warfighting mission—air defense—for whatever the reason—is deeply troubling.
And it begs questions, particularly in light of recent events in Seventh Fleet.
If seamanship is considered a core function of a U.S. Navy warship, then the ability to handle high-G, terminal maneuver, supersonic cruise missiles is a critical war-fighting capability.
As for those furious activities, post Nitze, other than the most detailed, post-mortem examination of the event, the totality of the Navy’s response appears to have been limited to the briefing of surface warfare officers, regarding the events, at highly variable levels of detail, depending on rank and position. Beyond that, a plan has evolved to increase the population of weapons and tactics instructors (WTIs) scheduled for assignment to the fleet over time.
If the surface forces are unable, for whatever reason, to conduct safe and effective seamanship evolutions, should it be expected that they are able to perform the most complex warfighting tasks?
A light is being focused on Seventh Fleet as if it is the weird outlier in which certifications and training are waived gratuitously in the name of operational expedience. Yet, based on the evidence, it would be a mistake to presume that the issue lies only in Japan and only in the area of fundamental seamanship.
The truth is that these issues will not be easily mitigated or solved overnight. In fact, they cannot be addressed fully until it is understood that the depth of the problem ranges far beyond an issue of up-to-date seamanship certification in the Forward-Deployed Naval Forces, Japan. The problem is more widespread, and the John S. McCain (DDG-56), Fitzgerald (DDG-62), Antietam (CG-54), Lake Champlain (CG-57), and Nitze are simply the tips of the iceberg.
Once the true state of the surface fleet is determined, and, more important, acknowledged, a genuine and sustaining cure can be sought. It also should be recognized that it took at least two decades for these front-line ships to reach their current states, and it would be difficult to imagine that the current state of affairs will be repaired with a few minor tweaks to the system.
Resolving these issues will require focused attention, unified, persistent effort, and money typically reserved for the most important programs of the Navy. More difficult yet, it will require the Navy demand the surrender of parochialism of its disparate communities.
But then, what can be more important than ships? As Admiral Swift, pointed out while Commander, Seventh Fleet, “I don’t need more aircraft carriers; what I need is more surface ships. They do everything, and I don’t have nearly enough.”
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).
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