Navy in 30-Year Decline; Overhaul Needed, SecNav Review Finds

Ships assigned to the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group participate in a strait transit exercise in the Pacific Ocean on April 3, 2017. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Ian Kinkead/Navy
Ships assigned to the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group participate in a strait transit exercise in the Pacific Ocean on April 3, 2017. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Ian Kinkead/Navy

A review launched by Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer after four major ship mishaps in the Pacific, two of them deadly, traces a path of service readiness and capability decline that stretches back to the end of the Cold War.

Published Thursday by the Navy, this Strategic Readiness Review recommends dramatic changes to the way the service operates, from how it interacts with and receives tasking from the joint force to how it employs surface officers and manages risk.

The 96-page report was compiled in 90 days under the supervision of retired Adm. Gary Roughead, the 29th chief of naval operations, and Michael Bayer, two-time chairman of the Defense Business Board. A dozen companies and organizations, including Boeing, Maersk and Delta, also consulted on the report.

Tracing a path from the post-Cold War "peace dividend" of the 1980s to the readiness shortfalls and costly mistakes of today's Navy, the report finds a "normalization of deviation" prevalent in the service.

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Errors, lower standards, and near-misses are accepted, rather than dealt with, creating an inferior new status quo, according to the document.

And some of the problem, the report finds, is a numbers game. The Navy shrank from 529 ships in 1991 to 316 in 2001 to its current fleet of 279. And yet, the report notes, the service has kept the same roughly 100 ships deployed at all times through the decades.

"Within the fleet, often the only option to meet those growing demands has been short-term trade-offs in training, manning and maintenance," Spencer told reporters at the Pentagon recently. " ... We were overdrawing our account, and it became a normalized thing to do."

23 Recommendations

A number of the 23 recommendations contained in the report are designed to protect the Navy from such capacity overdrafts.

It recommends, among other things, that Global Force Management -- which facilitates communication between the services and the combatant commanders about asset availability -- establish the maximum supportable peacetime force and put limits on what forces can be additionally requested.

It also calls for possible changes to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which reorganized the structure of the military to establish joint control and empowered U.S. combatant commanders to dictate how troops are requested and employed.

Spencer acknowledged that amending or modifying a long-standing law would not happen easily.

"Corrective actions have the best intent in the world. But many of the best corrective actions never have a sunset provision or an amendment provision without a lot of pain," he said. "Goldwater-Nichols did really spur us into jointness. We have to mature it and migrate some aspects of it to get best performance out of our governance structure."

Spencer said the Navy also wants to revisit the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act to allow the service to assert more control over its officers' career paths.

"One of the things we want to see on the administrative side is more direct control by the secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations when it comes to asset ownership and asset control," he said.

"I realize that our job is to man, train, equip, supply, and then we have our vice chiefs and the [defense secretary] applying those assets, but [we want] to have a clearer command line as to how those assets are kept current and in fighting force and readiness," Spencer said.

More Training, Restructured Career Paths

Some of the report's recommendations focus on a key finding of investigations into the surface ship collisions and other mishaps: Navy surface warfare officers often lack proficiency due to insufficient training and career demands.

The report recommended that career paths be restructured to give SWOs more practical experience aboard ships.

It calls for an end to the "fleet-up" model in which an executive officer completes a tour at a given command and then immediately begins a commanding officer tour at the same unit.

And it recommends that officers be required to maintain a career record of watch-standing hours and operational evolutions for surface ship watch-standers, to make it clear exactly how much experience an officer has in a given role.

No 'Zero-Defect' Culture

The report also pushes the idea of a learning organization that catches failures and errors early and changes course accordingly.

The document cites examples from corporations of a "zero-defect" culture, where omissions and safety violations are sometimes covered over to avoid hurting the careers of those responsible.

"This zero-defect mentality led to a lack of appreciation among corporate leaders concerning the number of near-misses that were occurring and might have proved useful as leading indicators of future potential problems," the report states.

Spencer said the service would look for ways to catch these early signals of problems before major disasters occur.

"We have to make the shift to leading indicators," he said. "We want to talk about near misses."

Navy leaders are "digesting" the recommendations of the strategic review, Spencer said. Of the recommendations approved for implementation, some might take months, others years, he said.

Spencer declined to point to a certain time when he believed his strategic review should have occurred to avoid the fatal mishaps of 2017.

"A learning organization would have never had the study," he said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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