All eyes on US Navy bid to reform and boost readiness after collisions

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The USS Theodore Roosevelt leads US and Singapore navy ships in the South China Sea on April 6. The US carrier is due to be deployed with the US 7th Fleet area for maritime security operations. A training exercise on April 10 came ahead of a port call in the Philippines, one of several nations which disputes Beijing's claim to the strategic waters. Photo: AFP/ US Navy/ Anthony J Rivera

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets US President Donald Trump this month, questions about US Navy readiness and the accuracy of reports from Saudi Arabia that US-built Patriot missiles largely failed to intercept missiles from Yemen will probably go unvoiced; he is far too polite.

That said, Tokyo has much at stake given Japan’s dependence upon Patriots, US Navy warships and US warplanes as vital components of Japan’s overall defense network. So do other friendly Asian states, given the importance of naval operations in such potential hotspots as the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.

On April 7, US Representative Mac Thornberry (Rep-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement saying “the readiness of our military is at a crisis point,” in reference to fatal aviation accidents. He said a lack of adequate funding was the root problem.

“Last month Congress voted to provide our troops the funds they need to begin turning this crisis around… there can be no higher priority for the Department of Defense than ensuring that our aircraft are safe and that pilots get the training they need,” Thornberry said.

Readiness a hot topic

Readiness is a hot topic in the US Navy this year. In 2017, incidents in Asian waters resulted in non-combat deaths of many US sailors.

Given this, the navy has been discussing what happened and what needs to be done. James Holmes, JC Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the US Naval War College, has studied these problems and wrote a commentary published in January, “Who Watches the Watchers in the US Navy?” He placed some blame on operational tempo as the US Navy spreads assets across the seas.

“Responding to ‘customer demand’ everywhere on the map wearies a force over time, even if every single action fulfills its goals. A navy substitutes being on station for training and upkeep. Savvy foes, moreover, can consciously exacerbate the effect by generating new demands — keeping the American fleet busy everywhere at all times. Grinding down the US Navy isn’t the chief purpose of China’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea — far from it — but inducing the US Pacific Fleet to undertake regular freedom-of-navigation cruises there represents an important side benefit. Likewise, dispatching China Coast Guard cutters to the waters adjoining the Senkaku Islands runs the smaller Japan Coast Guard ragged,” Holmes noted.

The USS Fitzgerald is seen after its collision with a Philippine container ship in June 2017. Source: YouTube.

An overcommitted elite

Kevin Eyer, a retired US Navy captain, recently addressed the challenges confronting US Navy and Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) in Japan in a lengthy article, “What Happened To Our Surface Forces?“, which appeared in January’s Proceedings of the US Naval Institute:

“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, owing 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,” Eyer wrote.

US NAVY crashes graphic

Back to the future?

Holmes said one problem is the long hangover from the post-Cold War era, when the US Navy did not foresee a major opponent reappearing on the high seas. “Our first strategic directive after the Cold War, ‘… From the Sea,’ directed the naval services to reinvent themselves as ‘fundamentally different’ services that didn’t need to bother preparing to fight other navies. And so they did. When top leadership says your major function is defunct – if perpetual peace is at hand in the maritime domain – it’s easy to fall into bad habits,” he said via email.

“Habits like canceling classroom training for new officers and sending them to their ships to learn everything – via on-the-job training; like cutting manpower to the bone on board ships, since there will be no battle, and thus no casualties that would require us to have excess manpower; and on and on. No organization should ever tell itself history has ended… we’re behind in certain areas in our competition with Russia and especially China.”

The process now underway in the US Navy involves a return to proven practices deemed essential in years past, Holmes said.

“In large part, we’re putting things back the way they were before we concluded naval history had ended. I would like to see more done,” he said. “Bureaucratic institutions are like machines: they mass-produce the same thing over and over again. They don’t easily adapt when the circumstances change around them, rendering their products moot. That’s when you need engineers on the scene.”

Meanwhile, the US Government Accountability Office has developed a series of recommendations for the US Navy. “In September 2017, in the wake of four significant Navy mishaps at sea that included the loss of 17 sailors and serious damage to Navy ships, we reiterated findings and recommendations from a series of Navy readiness reviews in two testimonies before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

Declining ship conditions, worsening readiness

“The testimonies showed that the Navy suffered from declining ship conditions and a worsening trend in overall readiness,” said John Pendleton, GAO’s Director for Force Structure and Readiness Issues via email. Key recommendations were, “to assess the risks associated with overseas basing, reassess sailor workload and the factors used to size ship crews, manage investments to modernize and improve the efficiency of the naval shipyards, and apply sound planning and sustained management attention to its readiness rebuilding efforts.”

The US Navy had its own internal reviews underway at the same time. In the fall of 2017, the Navy issued two reports with their own recommendations.

In late January, the Navy established the Readiness and Reform Oversight Council to oversee and ensure the implementation of recommendations from the reviews and external assessments. “The Council will meet monthly and provide, among other things, quarterly reports to Congress on progress,” Pendleton said. “We are following up with the Navy on their actions to address the challenges faced, but have not reached a conclusion about the adequacy of their actions.”

For different reasons, interested eyes in Japan, Korea, China and Russia will no doubt be watching this exchange closely.

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