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Fleet Forces boss urges for a ‘back to basics’ Navy

In a farewell message to U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Adm. John C. Harvey urged a return to basics in manning, equipping and operating the surface Navy.

And a big part of that message appeared to be: Go back to running it like a military and not a corporation. It’s not the first time that someone told the Navy to quit trying to operate like a business, but it’s probably one of the strongest to come from a four-star, even one sailing into retirement.

“We shifted our primary focus away from sailors and ships – the fundamentals of surface warfare - to finding efficiencies/reducing costs in order to fund other important efforts such as recapitalization,” Harvey said in a Sept. 1 message to the fleet. “We took our eyes off the ball of the main thing for which we were responsible – maintaining the wholeness and operational effectiveness of the surface force.”

Harvey retired on Sept. 14 after a 39-year career. He was succeeded as commander of Fleet Forces by Adm. William Gortney.

In his final message – actually a 2,200-word email to surface warfare flag officers – Harvey offered a mea culpa as well as an assessment of where the Navy went off course.

“I realize how much more I could have done to fully evaluate the impact the actions I've described to you had on our surface force's overall mission effectiveness,” he wrote.

As a flag officer, he said he focused too much on daily tasks and responsibilities without taking time to look at what effect his and other commanders’ decision were having on the Navy.

And when leadership did get together, he said it “did not get to the heart of the matter” – whether the Navy’s sailors and ships were collectively ready to carry out their missions.

“We could have done better,” he wrote. “You must do better, because now we know better.”

Harvey said he began working to put things right after being named commander of Fleet Forces three years ago. Working with Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, they began to clear out “a lot of the underbrush.”

But the work needs to continue, he said. The Navy must square greater focus on assigning the correct responsibilities to the accountable officers to ensure the Navy is “getting the full value of every readiness and maintenance dollar we spend.”

Harvey claims that responsibility for programs shifted from a single officer or office to be spread out among many. Decisions were made by committee. The Navy opted to toss overboard traditional rules on crew size and the kind of routine maintenance that had historically served the Navy so well.

The Navy has pushed for optimal manning on ships, with crews at about 90 percent of the lowest requirement. It borrowed from the “lean” or “just-in-time” logistics systems that have been widely adopted by corporations and adapted them in areas of maintenance.

Navy leaders believed the money saved in these efficiencies could be used to fund other programs. But those efficiencies never really materialized. Capabilities and assets deteriorated even as costs continued to rise to fund existing and new programs.

“When the assumptions behind the man, train, equip and maintain decisions did not prove valid, we didn't revisit our decisions and adjust course as required,” he said. “In short, we didn't routinely, rigorously and thoroughly evaluate the products of the plans we were executing.”

Remaining on that course caused the problems with the commissioning crews of the LPD-17s – the amphibious transport docks from which Marines deploy to shore – he said.

“We shifted maintenance ashore, scaled back our shipboard 3M [Maintenance and Material Management] program and reduced our preventive maintenance requirements to fit a smaller workforce, and then failed to fully fund the shore maintenance capacity we required,” he said.

Performance and reliability suffered. The ships increasingly failed critical material inspections done by the Board of Inspection and Survey, or INSURV, which Harvey called the “gold standard” for measuring ships and crews.

One place where the Navy has hurt itself is in manning. Leaders accepted ship crews that were 90 percent of the lowest requirement and simultaneously lost the necessary mix and experience of more seasoned sailors to train the younger ones.

As Harvey recounted events in his message, the problems began about a dozen years ago, as the Navy steamed ahead to introduce civilian, corporate-like efficiency programs.

Defense analyst Franklin “Chuck” Spinney said the Navy been hurting readiness with corporate processes for more than a generation.

Writing in May 2000, Spinney said the Navy already was in serious trouble.

“This deplorable state of affairs is the direct result of a conscious effort over the last six to eight years to make the logistics system more efficient as part of the ‘acquisition reform’ agenda,” he wrote.

These acquisition “deformers,” as Spinney called them, are attempting to lower operations’ costs by writing up budget plans “with assumptions based on predictions of future efficiencies.”

“That way they can transfer the ‘savings’ into modernization budgets in their futile effort to bail out the procurement accounts,” he wrote.

To Spinney, the Navy’s readiness problem was “a self-inflicted wound … brought about by rising costs, aging systems, and phony savings in the name of greater efficiency.”

“The admiral is trying to blame the problem on ‘just in time,’ when the real problem is increasing technological complexity of hardware and concomitant organizational structures to maintain that hardware,” Spinney wrote in an email.

The promise always asserts the higher acquisition costs of the new replacement weapon would be offset over the long term by lower operating costs thus resulting in lower life cycle costs, he said. The Pentagon began operating this way in the late 1960s, with the promised savings always increasing but never materializing, Spinney said.

He said the situation has only become “more extreme and outrageous over the years as the disconnect between the promises and reality have gotten worse.”

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