Surface Forces Are Refocused

Over the summer, two tragedies took the lives of 17 sailors on board the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56). These accidents were preceded by the grounding of the USS Antietam (CG-54) and the collision of the USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) with a South Korean fishing boat.

The root causes of these accidents were mistakes resulting from deviation from established watch standards, direction, practices, and procedures, and we are addressing how our watch teams are planning, practicing, and executing safe navigation practices. That being said, the accidents also brought to light questions the Navy and the surface force must address, particularly regarding the balance between the production and consumption of readiness at the force level. Senior leaders—both civilian and uniformed—have scrutinized the accidents and their causes. As a Navy, we are committed to addressing the specific issues contributing to the collisions, as well as the larger issues at hand.

There is much to be proud of in surface warfare, but we must do better to address systemic factors as we strive to better train shiphandlers and watchstanders. Readiness

Two essential processes are at work in today’s surface force: the production of readiness and the consumption of readiness. No matter where a ship is homeported, she is either generating readiness through maintenance, modernization, and training or she is consuming it with operations at sea.

The production of readiness is a function of many inputs tied closely to available resources. These inputs include proper manning and manpower on our ships—that is, both the right number of people and the right skill sets; sufficient manning in shore-based training organizations, again, in both numbers and skills; a robust maintenance support function; regularly scheduled modernization; and properly manned and resourced command and oversight organizations.

The consumption of readiness is the purview of operational commanders, primarily the numbered fleet commanders. Their responsibilities have increased substantially in the past few decades, as a Navy that in 1989 routinely had 100 of its nearly 600 ships under way has evolved into a 277-ship Navy with 100 ships routinely under way. This is compounded by mounting threats to U.S. security interests, including a powerful China, a newly emboldened Russia, an unpredictable North Korea, an Iran bent on regional dominance, and an ever-present threat of terrorism.

The failure to adjust Navy operational culture and habits to the reality of a greatly reduced force size has been further complicated by reductions in our readiness production capacity. Budget reduction decisions, made to balance competing priorities in a time of need or to gain efficiency, can create additional and unforeseen risks to our capability and capacity. In addition, these risks are not conceptualized in real time and can take a decade or more to recover from if and when further resources are applied later in the requirements process.

Much has been made of Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle’s 2010 inquiry into surface force readiness, the prioritization of efficiency over effectiveness, and its critical assessment of the state of manpower, training, and maintenance in the surface […]