What Happened To Our Surface Forces?

Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Conversely, this need for precision is neither broadly recognized nor internally supported when it comes to getting a surface combatant under way. After all, ships do not sink, even when they are woefully designed or maintained. And even if things go terribly wrong, ships operate almost exclusively in international waters and can be towed to port.

In fact, because ships are resilient, many people have come to accept that the exactitude required for submarines and aircraft can be balanced on the inexactitude that is evidently acceptable for ships. The evidence of this is manifest, and the list of ships experiencing casualties while under way—casualties of the sort that would have spelled disaster in a submarine or aircraft—is long and infamous. Yet for the Navy and the nation, there was never a danger of terminal failure, that is, short of an unprepared surface force in the event of an outbreak of major war.

Setting the Stage

In 1992, the Navy reorganized the Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO’s) staff. The discrete changes enacted within the staff, community-to-community, were similar. So for the purposes of illustration, only those undertaken in the surface community are addressed here.

Prior to the reorganization, there were three, three-star leaders in the surface community: OP-03, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) for Surface Warfare; Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic; and Commander, Naval Surface Force, Pacific. These flag officers established future requirements, fixed resource levels, set the community standards, and shaped the culture of the surface navy. The reorganization, however, dropped OP-03 from three-star to two-star level, where he was designated as N-86 and subordinated to a different, not necessarily surface warfare three-star, titled the Programming and Budget Lead (N-8).

It was into this unstable mix that Admiral Vern Clark arrived as Chief of Naval Operations in 2000. In 2001, Commander, Naval Surface Force, Atlantic, was lowered to the two-star level. Only Commander, Naval Surface Force, Pacific, retained a third star, becoming the “Lead” type commander (TyCom) and de facto lead for the entire community—Commander, Naval Surface Forces. Rather than a triumvirate working as a team to rule the community, the Lead TyCom approach ensured that only one vice admiral would be in charge of the entire surface enterprise.

Admiral Clark’s vision may be described as a desire to implement a program he called “Sea Enterprise.” In his statement before the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on 10 March 2005, he summarized his approach: “We must provide incentives for innovation in the workplace, and implement tools and techniques that enable the workforce to challenge existing assumptions, eliminate unnecessary costs, and increase efficiency and effectiveness.” Admiral Clark was determined to create efficiencies by challenging existing assumptions. He was determined to streamline processes, cut costs, and change standards, largely by implementing a now discredited approach in which “best practices” of industry were to be adopted wholesale.

The Turn of a Card

One year after Admiral Clark became CNO, Vice Admiral Tim LaFleur was assigned as Commander, Naval Surface Forces/Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet—the three-star lead of all the surface forces. Vice Admiral LaFleur, a trusted and long-time ally of Admiral Clark, became the ideal vehicle for the implementation of the CNO’s vision, at least in the surface navy. The other communities advocated for efficiencies in line with their community cultures.

Conversely, Vice Admiral LaFleur fully embraced the CNO’s vision, and with an unvarnished passion. This is what CNO Clark had to say at Vice Admiral LaFleur’s retirement, four years later:

Our year-one personal project was the reshaping and the alignment of the United States Navy. And we saw a need to recreate the community leadership that in our view we had lost. The heart of that effort was the type commander merger. To create one Navy, it was our view that these two organizations and these two fleets—the Atlantic and the Pacific—could not function as two but had to function as one. And the term Super-TyCom was born as we established these individuals to lead our major communities.

Tim I thought was the perfect officer to rise to leadership and replace Ed Moore as the surface navy’s Super TyCom. I wanted Tim because as I said he was an innovator, but he was also a person who had the courage to challenge the status quo. . . . Tim LaFleur had the courage to lead us on this new journey. He got to the heart of why we did things. Challenged decades old assumptions. Helped give our institution a corporate perspective, applying business principles to logistics and training and manning. He taught us the potential of fleet alignment.

He rewrote our Navy’s flag officer assessments. He drafted the fleet requirements for the Littoral Combatant Ship. He engineered the concepts behind Sea Swap. He orchestrated our Optimal Manning concepts. He agreed that it was time to capture the full potential of our senior enlisted force and is now putting chief petty officers into division officer billets on the United States Ship Decatur.

As would be detailed in the years to come, there were multiple factors that insidiously began to work together, and against the surface force, in this new environment. Chief among these may be “the tendency for Commanding Officers to ‘get underway at all costs’ in order to meet mission requirements.” 1 This mantra was encouraged, admired, inculcated, and ultimately became the costly standard that proved the hard place against which the rock of efficiencies ground. Having said that, and while a universe of decisions, both large and small, played into the steady decline in readiness experienced in the surface forces, it is useful to briefly detail a few of the most significant causative factors:

• Fleet Review Board: Beginning in 1999, the Fleet Review Board (FRB) significantly reduced the number of inspections and certifications required of ships. Further, Preventive Maintenance System (PMS) requirements also were scaled back in an effort to ease the burden on ship crews.

• Optimum Manning: In 2001, a decision was made to implement a concept known as “optimum manning” in surface ships. Shipboard manning requirements were subsequently assessed primarily against shipboard watchstanding requirements and without reference to maintenance requirements. Manning in ships was reduced to levels well below the requirements identified in the ships’ design phases and below the levels required to support material readiness requirements. The problem was exacerbated as new billets authorized in ships did not account for the average 8.4 percent annual loss of personnel per ship because of legal, medical, and other issues. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer’s average manning declined from 317 (1998) to 254 (2009). Conceptually, some portion of the ships’ maintenance burden was intended to be shifted to shore support facilities. This never was achieved, however, at least in part because the shore intermediate repair organizations simultaneously experienced reduced capability and capacity in the name of efficiencies.

• Revolution in Training (RIT): This 2001 program led to the disestablishment of Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) Division Officer Course in 2003, which was replaced by the self-taught, “SWOS-in-a-Box” program using computer disks. In 2005, basic engineering training also was replaced with computer-based training with the establishment of the Basic Engineering Common Core (BECC) program. “Self-taught SWOS did not enable officers to arrive on board ships with the correct baseline knowledge of surface warfare fundamentals. This placed an added training burden on Wardroom Officers and the Chief Petty Officer Mess to train new officers. Officer qualifications, experience, and proficiency were negatively impacted and may have reached a critical level that could affect a generation of Surface Warfare Officers and adversely affect the overall readiness of the future Navy” (emphasis added). 2

• Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM): Along with decreased shipboard manning and training, ship maintenance availabilities were shortened from 15 to 9 weeks, and the Material Maintenance Management (3M) program was scaled back. Waterfront maintenance capability and capacity declined. Based on a shift from CBM to continuous maintenance (CM), which was thought to be more effective and efficient, the maintenance funding for DDGs was reduced by 44 percent. The projected savings were not realized, however, in part because of near simultaneous cuts to the shore infrastructure critical for condition assessment and a concurrent declining ability of the ships to self-assess.

One of the critical assumptions in CM was that a portion of preventive and corrective maintenance would be moved ashore. In 2005, Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activities (SIMAs) began to close, and by 2006, the Regional Support Organizations (RSOs) were disestablished. Work was pushed back to the now undermanned ships. Moreover, there was an assumption that the TyCom would have a pool of personnel with the right qualifications and skills available to augment the ships’ crews when unplanned losses were experienced. That pool of persons never materialized.

In 2005, Vice Admiral LaFleur was relieved by Vice Admiral Terrance Etnyre, who continued and even expanded on this mode of thinking. It was he, for example, who oversaw the implementation of the executive officer (XO)/commanding officer (CO) fleet-up program, despite protests that this would take post-department head officers away from ships for periods ranging from five to six years prior to command at sea. “Further, the surplus of junior officers aboard ships (DDGs now have 32 officers vice 21 officers ten year ago) combined with the downward trend of operating time in post-deployment sustainment phase means that the officers may actually be less proficient at SWO skills (e.g., shiphandling even though they’ve had more sea duty). . . . [C]ommanding officers have stated that they are challenged in giving the newest ensigns meaningful responsibilities and adequate conning time.” 3

Vice Admiral Etnyre continued advocacy of the littoral combat ship, despite severe doubts expressed by a near-endless stream of experienced surface force captains. He did not provide an open avenue for dissent.

Last Bulwark Breaks

Around 2006, ships regularly began to fail Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv) inspections, which was the last untainted barometer of a ship’s health. For his part, Vice Admiral Etnyre attributed these failures exclusively to the ships and their perceived inability to gauge and correct their own material condition ahead of the inspection. He was convinced that if only the ships could judge their equipment on their own (inspections and assessments used to help with this complex task having been all but eliminated), they could then fix this equipment early and pass the InSurvs. However, even when those ships were able to rise above their charters and perform depot-level-like self-assessments, they were told officially, along with the entire surface force, that no additional, unplanned funding would be made available for repairs, including repairs leading into an InSurv. Then in 2008, the USS Chosin (CG-65) and USS Stout (DDG-55) failed their respective InSurvs, and the levy broke: The failing health of the surface force suddenly became national news.

In response to the crisis, a decision was made to simply remove the problem from public sight by making the InSurv reports classified. These reports had never before been classified, not even at the height of the Cold War. On 25 March 2009, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing related to the classification of InSurv reports. The panel concluded: “The results for the ships with numerous issues are indicative of the ships’ leadership team not following procedures and policies and not practicing the basics of equipment maintenance and operation.” It is important to note that a number of the flag officers who testified were surface warfare officers who elected, despite evidence to the contrary, to support Vice Admiral Etnyre’s views: The fault was pinned solely on the ships and blame assigned to the ships’ captains (many of whom were fired).

Subsequently, the inspection also was watered down, making it more “passable” and less frequent. At this time, ships routinely began to strip other, local ships of needed parts to even approach the inspection with a chance of success. Ship health was in free fall, yet the truth was masked.

At the same time, no one seemed to acknowledge the following realities:

• Years of declining maintenance funds

• Years of reductions in maintenance time

• The decreasing size of the fleet

• Increased demand for ships at sea along with new mission sets, such as ballistic missile defense (BMD)

• The gutting of external programs and organizations designed to assist in the maintenance of ships

• A return to high-demand, real-world undersea warfare as new challengers went or returned to sea

• Slashed training for officers and enlisted persons

• Implementation of “efficiency” after “efficiency”

Into the Light

A tipping point was reached in 2009. Admiral John Harvey, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, with the support of Admiral Robert “Rat” Willard, Commander, Pacific Fleet, recruited retired Vice Admiral Phil Balisle to investigate the state of the surface force. Vice Admiral Balisle undertook a wide-ranging, in-depth, zero-based examination of the surface force. In effect, he determined that the drive for “efficiency” since the beginning of the century had resulted in a disastrous decline in ship readiness. The report clearly detailed that maintenance of ships, training of crews, and manning were leading to a hollow force. The results of his investigation soon became an appalling matter of record.

It is a common mistake to presume that changes were not enacted to address issues identified in the Balisle Report. Actually, significant actions were taken. For example, the Navy:

• Ramped up surface ship maintenance funding, even though it was against the tide of a topline reduction

• Established the Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program, modeled on a similar organization in the submarine community, to rigorously track maintenance

• Restored approximately half the surface-ship manning that had been removed in the early 2000s in the name of “efficiency”

• Revised the Fleet Response Plan (FRP) to protect the maintenance and training phases

• Added more hands-on training in surface enlisted pipelines while reducing what had become “self-paced,” “computer-based” training

• Increased Afloat Training Group (ATG) billets so the organization might again have time to conduct training in addition to assessments

• Increased outside assessments by Mobile Training Teams (MTTs)

• Brought back the Senior Officer Ship Maintenance and Repair Course (SOSMRC)

• Restored some missile shots

• Brought back the Basic Division Officer Course in homeports

• Reestablished Surface Intermediate Maintenance Activities ashore

While progress was made, it was slow and occurred in fits and starts. This was, at least in part, as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, subsequent sequestration, and the continuing resolutions process, which goes on to this day. Further complicating the effort was an undiminishing, worldwide thirst for ships, particularly as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran began to stir. This demand signal continued, unabated, as the overall size of the U.S. fleet continued to contract. Nevertheless, in most parts of the surface force, things did begin to improve. Still, and for a number of very specific reasons, there was one particular outlier in this slow redux: Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF), Japan.

In the past, when ships were more plentiful, FDNF, Japan, surface forces regularly were augmented by West Coast deployers, which performed multiple, key tasks in the western Pacific. But as the situation in Central Command remained hot, those West Coast ships passed though Seventh Fleet on the way to more urgent tasking. At the same time, three problems crystallized in the Seventh Fleet operating area. First, limitations in infrastructure placed a ceiling on the numbers of ships that could be based in Japan. Second, owning to larger political forces, Seventh Fleet could not shed myriad discrete demands for ships. For example, certain port visits and operations with allied navies absolutely had to be conducted. Third, a belief had grown in Seventh Fleet and FDNF, Japan, that these ships assigned were somehow the “elite” of the surface force, owing to their real-world, high operational tempo and mission set. Consequently, these ships did not operate within a normal inspection cycle or standardized maintenance scheme. The driving factor was getting from commitment to commitment, not whether the ships were fully capable. Unfortunately, despite the fact that these issues were well known by virtually all the Navy’s leadership, both inside and outside Seventh Fleet, no one chose to speak up or step in—that is, until the disasters of June and August forced action.

Treating the Illness

Now, thanks to the certification and expansion of the Balisle Report represented in the Comprehensive Review conducted by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, a complete picture of the health of the surface force exists. Yet, while it is essential to undertake the corrections detailed in both reports, it also is critical to understand that there are deeper issues that demand examination and consideration. At least two other causative factors reach far beyond a single decision, event, or personality.

First, the officers of the surface force are not professionally trained at a level sufficient to the technology. Well before World War II, the aviation and submarine communities began to embrace the concentrated sort of training necessary for their emerging aircraft and submarines. Pace was kept along with racing technology, and when issues arose, effective actions were undertaken. For example, noting a need for more and better training to reduce a troubling safety record, the post-Vietnam aviation community instituted the Replacement Air Groups (RAGs) in the 1970s.

As for the surface force, it was not until the arrival of high-speed cruise missiles that a mid-grade training course for officers was initiated in the early 1960s (though sophisticated division officer training still lay far in the future). Even so, as is now a matter of record, officer training was reduced significantly in 2003. Moreover, the training of enlisted persons likewise has declined as a preference for generalism has been extended to the technical expertise of ships.

Every other significant surface navy in the world sends professional, career engineers to their ships, but most also send trained, professional combat-systems engineers to those same ships. Our Navy has employed a generalist approach of assigning officers to ships without deep training to allow for broad flexibility in later assignment. This became the accepted norm in ships after World War II, in the glow of victory. This generalist practice, however, may no longer be a viable option in the world’s most high-tech Navy, as it appears many officers can operate neither bridge radars nor ship control consoles—or perhaps even more sophisticated combat and engineering systems. The problem has become so critical that combatant ships now routinely deploy with civilian weapon systems technicians, who provide the expertise not apparently available in the existing surface force.

In addition, a change in organizational approach is needed. And the surface force should not be shy about taking a page from the submarine community’s playbook. Today, a destroyer squadron (DesRon) commander may go through an entire tour seldom or never having set foot on some of the ships under his or her command. This organizational structure simply is not working. Unlike a DesRon, a submarine squadron (SubRon) does not deploy. Rather the SubRon assumes responsibility for the readiness of his or her subs at ground level throughout their lifespans and regardless of location. If a submarine experiences problems while deployed, the SubRon sends personnel to assist, and they remain in place until the issues are fully resolved. Moreover, SubRons are populated by the best submarine officers available. The training and engineering officers, for example, are hand-picked, top-performing, immediately post-05-command officers from within the parent squadron.

The surface force also needs to rethink how officers are assigned to ships. Submariners religiously assign their best officers to their worst boats. They “score” officers throughout their careers, and they know what boats need the best to ensure the highest standards are maintained. In the surface force, the opposite is true. To protect those perceived to be “rising stars,” the best officers are assigned to the best ships, while other officers are assigned to the most troubled ships. The pattern continues in major command assignments. During the first decade of this century, some 80 percent of surface flags were selected from DesRon command, rather than cruisers or amphibs, which were each understood to be high-wire acts of personal risk. Generally speaking, potential flag officers were assigned to DesRons, where risk was minimal. Actually, until the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and John S. McCain (DDG-56), a destroyer squadron commander had never been fired for professional incompetence. Ship COs, on the other hand, fell like leaves. This philosophy has to be turned on its head.

Finally, the surface force needs to shelve the idea that as our best officers move up they also move away from ships. We need to let surface warfare officers be surface warfare officers, and start valuing ships above ensuring that all of our officers become as broad as possible, and as early as possible. At the end of the day, when and if war comes, it is encouraging to know that our submarine and air forces are ready, and ready now. We must create the same conditions for the surface forces. They are going to have to shield the carriers from air attack. The surface forces are going to have to fight and sink waves of other surface forces and any submarine that slips through the outer defenses.

The surface warfare community is in some trouble, and the seeds that caused this situation were sown long ago.

1. “Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness” (The Balisle Report), 26 February 2010, 5.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 58.

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).

Listen to a  Proceedings Podcast  interview with this author about this article below:



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