I had the privilege of serving with some of the most talented and dedicated sailors and civilians in our Navy, culminating in what I believe is the best job in the world—Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet (C7F). I had the opportunity to work with our forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific. Tragically, during the summer of 2017, we experienced the horrific collisions of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56). I am concerned that, in some quarters, these collisions are viewed and characterized as a “local”—Japan only—problem. There certainly were pressures on the fleet in Japan, but there are also indications of problems elsewhere. While the investigations in the aftermath of the loss of 17 sailors addressed many of the issues that may have led to the collisions, there were other factors. I offer some additional thoughts on what we were dealing with, because without a full understanding of what happened, we will be limited in our ability to address the root causes and ensure this does not happen again.
The “Comprehensive Review” (CR), “Strategic Review” (SR), and some media reporting could lead one to the impression my staff and I were oblivious to or unconcerned about the manning, training, and maintenance deficiencies affecting my ships and their ability to carry out their assigned missions. That was not the case. I made clear to Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet (ComPacFlt), the impact of increased operational demand on training and maintenance well prior to the two DDGs’ collisions. Despite these explicitly stated concerns, the direction we received was to execute the mission.
We also were well aware that there were critical deficiencies in the manning of C7F operational units. Starting around 2014, the manning level of Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) ships began dropping off as a result of policies prioritizing Continental United States (ConUS)-based ships entering the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) over FDNF ships. Not only did my staff recognize the negative effects of manning shortfalls on the FDNF, it was thanks to our insistence that U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFF) finally agreed to an FDNF Manning Summit in June 2017. This Manning Summit set in motion policy changes that will begin to relieve some of the FDNF manning deficiencies. When it comes to addressing the critical manpower shortages that we faced, however, the CR does not mention the above, nor does it really go after our manning shortfall with actionable items. While it is said that the CR focused primarily on training and readiness, it did not address manpower issues nearly enough. I do not know how one can exclude manpower in a discussion on readiness in a high-operational tempo (OpTempo) environment. Captain John Cordle has it right in his March 2018 Proceedings article, “It Is All about the Sailors” (pp. 17-21), on manning. I recommend that everyone read this article.
The “Comprehensive Review” and the “Strategic Review” also neglected to highlight certain facts of command and control (C2) in the Western Pacific. For example, Afloat Training Group (ATG) Western Pacific, responsible for the training and certification of FDNF surface ships based in Japan, was not under C7F command, but instead reported directly to Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific (CNSP). The USS Lake Champlain (CG-57)’s collision in the Sea of Japan in May 2017 often is cited as an example of degraded readiness in C7F surface forces. In fact, this cruiser was a San Diego-based ship entirely trained and certified by Commander, Third Fleet. Finally, no discussion of command and control in the Western Pacific between 2015 and 2017 should overlook the effects of the “Third Fleet Forward” initiative. Under this initiative, surface forces that historically had been deployed to the Western Pacific to augment the presence of (and relieve the pressure on) FDNF forces, now were taken out of C7F’s command. While these ships occasionally filled some missions that would otherwise have required FDNF ships, they spent much of their time executing “shows of force” or engaging in Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) fisheries patrols and therefore were not available to provide relief for FDNF cruisers or destroyers (CruDes) in need of training or maintenance. Moreover, efforts were undertaken to train Third Fleet to take on this new role, in addition to their primary responsibility of training and certifying units for deployment.
The “Comprehensive Review” recommends improving operational risk management (ORM) within the surface community by identifying hazards, assessing risk, and sharing information to help shape risk control and prevent future mishaps. Some of those critical ingredients, however, should have been applied to the development of the CR itself. How comprehensive is the CR when neither Commander, Naval Surface Forces (CNSF), nor I, as the numbered fleet commander, was interviewed or asked for inputs? For the sake of our Navy, a transparent examination of the problem should include a full understanding of the challenges with which we were faced.
The Operational Environment
Between 2015 and 2017, naval operations in the Indo-Asia Pacific expanded dramatically both in direct response to national priorities and to ComPacFlt and Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (USPaCom). As a consequence of the increasing demand for and decreasing availability of C7F assets, readiness declined in CruDes forces. This was known both to commanders in FDNF and across the Navy. The GAO had reported to the Navy in 2015 that resources were not keeping pace with demand. Through 2016 and culminating in early 2017, my staff produced detailed data quantifying the increase in CruDes operational tasking and demonstrating the consequent decline in executed maintenance and training, which I sent directly to ComPacFlt. ComPacFlt agreed operational tasking threatened FDNF surface maintenance and training. Yet C7F received no substantive relief from tasking or additional resources.
In this environment, our mindset at Seventh Fleet Headquarters was to keep the focus on executing safe operations, prioritize what needed to be done, push back on tasking out of line with priorities, and empower and encourage the task force commanders to provide us data to support such push-backs. It was often the case that operational missions (more often than not of the “short-notice” variety) came down from USPaCom and ComPacFlt with warning orders or that “requests for forces” were met with a “not recommended” response from C7F. Such responses always were required to be accompanied with a by-name identified ship to be used if we were “forced to source” the mission, as well as an estimated impact statement of what cost and risks would be incurred if we were to task that ship with the mission. The impact statements routinely highlighted to higher headquarters that sourcing these missions would come at the cost of training and readiness. More often than not, we would be directed to fill and execute the mission through a follow-on task order or voice order directing the by-name identified ship to execute the mission. In a few cases, we were able to argue for changes that allowed ships to complete training or maintenance. In many other cases, our arguments and recommendations were either overruled or ignored.
The CR cites the need to “restore” the C7F scheduling conference. The scheduling conference is an important tool in prioritizing unit employment. But the idea that such prioritization was being ignored is misleading. A regularly scheduled conference was held in November 2016. By the time of the next scheduled conference (May 2017), circumstances around the Korean Peninsula temporarily had made operational scheduling problematic. Hastily directed response options that heavily tasked our fleet, such as dual carrier operations, created an unfiltered demand signal for more naval units and wreaked havoc on our schedule lines. Under these circumstances, the May 2017 conference was postponed.
The CR should highlight the magnitude of the combatant commander’s appetite for more operational presence of aircraft, ships, and subs—without requesting additional forces—as a contributing factor to the declining state of readiness in Seventh Fleet leading into the summer of 2017. While the CR mentions the demand associated with ballistic missile defense (BMD), and other demands are brought up in the classified reports, it would have been reassuring if the CR had addressed the Navy’s organizational responsibility to act as a check against such increasing demand when divorced from the reality of readiness impacts. While the situation was well known by more senior leaders, this demand went unfiltered and fell to me.
The Manning Issue
Any chief on the waterfront between 2015 and 2017 would have told you that manning was the number-one issue faced by FDNF-Japan ships. FDNF sailors are motivated individuals. Still, the fastest way to kill that motivation is to meet a returning FDNF sailor at the pier in Yokosuka or Sasebo and tell this sailor that he or she must go right back out on another deployment on a different ship because of a manning shortfall. Meanwhile, it was frustrating to hear that some San Diego ships were overmanned, as I expressed during one PacFlt meeting after hearing a West Coast ship was so over-manned it left 30 people on the pier. At the time, we were having to cross-deck 49 sailors in FDNF-J to fill gaps on our ships, and 5 of 11 CruDes forces had senior quartermaster billets gapped.
It should not have taken so long, but after nearly two years of constantly bringing up our manpower issues, the Manning Control Authority (MCA) agreed to come to Japan for a manning summit. During this conference, the traditional reasons were rehashed to explain why it is difficult to man FDNF. Many sailors or family members are unable to satisfactorily complete the overseas-screening process because of medical, financial, or legal difficulties, and significant numbers decline the re-enlistments necessary to fulfill overseas tour obligations. However, other issues that were not as apparent greatly compounded our difficulties in FDNF.
The Navy’s MCA lead civilian briefed us that the overall Navy manning shortfall had grown to 7,500 people, and it was a fact of life that shortfalls were going to be experienced throughout our Navy. A key element that affected FDNF was the OFRP model adopted by the Navy for training ConUS units in 2014. In 2015 OFRP was modified such that ConUS-based units would be prioritized higher for manning than non-OFRP units such as FDNF units. This short-sighted mandate would enable ConUS-based units to be fully manned to their fit/fill thresholds starting from the beginning of their 36-month cycle, but the negative consequence was that non-OFRP units, such as the FDNF, would bear the brunt of the shortfall. In addition to a soaring OpTempo, the cumulative effect over time of not having enough people and resorting to cross-decking had a debilitating effect on readiness. We not only lacked overall numbers of people, we also lacked mentors, the men and women with the skills and experience that are vital to raising our next generation of experienced sailors. This was compounded by the fact that we were operating in the most challenging operational environment in the world and while lacking training devices, ranges, and other support generally available to units back home.
Following the Manning Summit, at the August 2017 Fleet Synchronization Conference, Navy leaders agreed to alter manning prioritization to benefit FDNF. This undoubtedly will help our FDNF-J ships get back to stable and satisfactory manning levels, and the new Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific (CNSP), Vice Admiral Richard A. Brown, has indicated the situation is improving. There is no mention, however, of this challenge or its effects in the CR. With this lack of transparency, we miss a chance to capture lessons learned.
Accountability & Authority
While C7F had tactical control of the Lake Champlain for a few days while she operated near the Korean Peninsula, she was a Third Fleet ship that had been manned, trained, and equipped stateside when she suffered a daylight collision with a Korean fishing boat in the Sea of Japan. Third Fleet, which had certified the Lake Champlain, convened the investigation, held the investigation results, and determined any follow-on action. The fact that we had a non-Seventh Fleet ship experience difficulties in navigation and seamanship, prior to the Fitzgerald and in daylight, and without the lessons learned being made available to Seventh Fleet (until after the John S. McCain tragedy), is not mentioned anywhere in the CR. The CR also did not consider that such an event might indicate a Navy-wide issue may exist.
This highlights an accountability/authority mismatch for the manning, training, and equipping of CruDes ships that my staff had to deal with on a daily basis. While we were aware of the issues and engaged with the responsible organizations, the training, manning, and equipping of our CruDes ships remained the primary responsibility of CNSP up through ComPacFlt.
Observations & Recommendations
It is a strength of our Navy that we strive to be a fearless learning organization, and it is imperative that in the wake of such tragedy all issues be addressed to prevent future incidents. The CR addressed many, one of the biggest being the training of our surface warfare officers (SWOs). I think the main culprit for these collisions was that we allowed the training of our surface warriors to atrophy. In addition to the operational squeeze on training opportunities, it is encouraging the CR addresses other issues contributing to this issue. One is the near-constant reorganization of SWO Division Officer formalized training, wherein greater reliance on PowerPoint instruction and on-the-job training have been ascendant (in contrast to submarine, flight, and SEAL training and at the Marine Corps Basic School). Our surface navy is loaded with talent and great people, but they have lacked some of the foundational building blocks of training that have been eroded or simply cut because of budgetary pressure.
To help correct this dearth of training, I recommend FNDF-J receive dedicated Tier 1 training time set aside, similar to what FDNF-Mediterranean ships receive. In addition, in the challenging operational environment of the Western Pacific where experience really matters, I recommend bolstering the FDNF by incentivizing more of our senior enlisted professionals and officers to take orders to the FDNF-J.
I also have to question some of the initiatives being considered, such as placing the manning, training, and equipping functions under FFC. In 2017, FFC was the manning control authority, yet the MCA placed FDNF manning priorities second to other deployed units and below those units preparing to deploy from the United States. Would not FDNF resourcing be better served by placing training and equipping functions under FFC?
My biggest concern is whether we truly have the resolve to fix these issues for our surface warriors. One only has to go back to the collision of the USS Porter (DDG-78) to see what needed to be done. It was disappointing to see that many issues identified then were not corrected. We allowed budget cuts to whittle away training and were not forceful enough to advocate for what our Navy needed to safely do the mission. Today, the Navy has that support from our Secretary of Navy, and shortfalls are being addressed now. But if/when we find the support is not there at levels above the uniformed leaders, will the lessons of 2017 allow us to advocate forcefully for the Navy we need? To not ensure that 2017 never is repeated would be to accept such incidents as the “price of doing business.”
7th Fleet sailors, like Hull Maintenance Technician Cola Parsley, are dedicated and hard-working. They deserve reasonable and consistent support for their ships, their families and their careers.
Manning and excessive tasking were huge issues for Seventh Fleet, but they are not addressed head-on in the CR. Instead, the CR indicates I should have pushed back more than I had done, after being told to “force to source.” Still, I do not understand why our leaders do not push back on the excessive demand on our ships or exhibit more transparency on the true extent of the issues the Navy faces beyond Seventh Fleet. Why cannot the Navy ask for more people? Or why cannot the Navy answer more directly the question raised by Congressman William Thornberry (R-TX) during the post-collisions hearing: “Why hasn’t the Navy asked for manpower?” The can-do culture and cutting-corners mentality, which the CR states were the norm at Seventh Fleet, certainly may exist, but it is not at Seventh Fleet. In the end, the same fate awaits us if the uniform leaders cannot defend the Navy’s manning requirements, push back on tasking demands, and advocate strongly for those resources that our sailors need to do their job.
As a numbered fleet commander, I was ultimately responsible for the proper operation of fleet assets provided to me. And while we were able to turn off some taskings, in hindsight, I should have reiterated a “no” when issued “forced to source orders” for operational tasking. I accept this mistake. At the same time, in the future I hope our Navy will listen more carefully to our commanders on the scene.
These tragedies and loss of life have left scars on many of us that will not and should not be forgotten, and help ensure that we do everything we can to prevent something like this from ever occurring again. It has been extremely satisfying serving alongside our sailors worldwide, in combat and peacetime. They all are hard-working men and women, but nowhere do they bear the consistent, day-to-day, year-over-year operational tempo that they do in FDNF-Japan. This is true for families as well, who also endure the constant scrutiny of living overseas and the challenge—and expense—of living far from loved ones back in the States. This has been true for decades, and my foremost hope is that my Navy can better support the men and women of the FDNF. They do not ask to drop the pack or request special treatment. In fact, most sailors in FDNF find the mission exhilarating. At the same time, these wonderful people do need reasonable and consistent support for their ships, their families, and their careers.
Vice Admiral Aucoin was a career naval aviator who flew more than 150 combat missions over Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. He commanded Fighter Squadron 41, Carrier Air Wing 5, Carrier Strike Group 3, and the U.S. Seventh Fleet.