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Navy Has Choice: More Ships or Fewer Missions, Surface Commander Says

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd, USS Howard and USS Shoup participate in a group sail as part of Tiger Cruise 2017 for the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group on Dec. 2, 2017, in the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ian D. Zagrocki)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd, USS Howard and USS Shoup participate in a group sail as part of Tiger Cruise 2017 for the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group on Dec. 2, 2017, in the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ian D. Zagrocki)

The commander of Naval Surface Forces believes the Navy can recover from the jarring tragedies of last summer, when the service lost 17 sailors in two separate ship collisions in the Pacific.

But, he said, recovery will take time, and that will mean finding slack in the surface fleet's high operational tempo.

In one of his last public addresses in his position, Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden spoke Tuesday at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium near Washington, D.C. On the heels of the two ship collisions, Rowden requested early retirement and will hand off the position to his successor, Rear Adm. Richard Brown, in the next three weeks.

Recently released investigations into the collisions of the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain with commercial vessels revealed errors of watchstanding, communication, and ship control that resulted in the disasters.

Concurrent reviews ordered by the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the Navy highlighted an array of issues, including failures in training of surface officers and career trajectories that kept them from developing proficiency in driving ships. It also found that fatigue was a problem, with overworked sailors forgoing sleep to stand watches.

The Navy is in the process of evaluating dozens of prescriptive recommendations to fix identified problems. Some measures have already been implemented by Rowden, including a policy to allow sailors to get more regular sleep aboard ship and a ready-for-sea assessment program that evaluates surface ships before they deploy.

In his address, Rowden said all these changes will require a costly resource: time.

"[Ship crews in the Western Pacific need] time. Time to maintain their gear, time to refresh their basic individual and team skills, and time to unwind," he said. "Time will only come from one of two things, or a combination of them -- more ships, and fewer obligations. It is hard to see things any other way."

The Navy is only now beginning to acknowledge within the institution that it might have to take on fewer missions in order to rebuild readiness and ensure safe operations.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer broached the topic in December, noting that the Navy is currently fulfilling only 50 percent of tasking received from the Joint Chiefs and geographic combatant commanders. He added that the service may have to turn down more missions to avoid being overtasked.

For Rowden to make a similar statement as an operational commander sends a strong message. As the commander of the Navy's surface forces, he noted that his job is to get the mission done.

"The adjudication is above my paygrade," he said.

However, he added, it is his responsibility to speak out about the supply and demand mismatch.

" 'Hey, Tom, can you do it?' 'Yes,' " Rowden said. "But the question that I have to ask myself is ... should I do it? Based on where we are on the materiel perspective, on the manning perspective, whatever the case may be. That's kind of at the fundamental basis. We've got to find answers."

The Navy does plan to build more ships -- it continues to endorse a goal of a 355-ship fleet -- but significant growth has yet to be planned or funded, and is years away in any case. And if the Navy does plan to pull back from certain taskings, officials are not yet ready to say which ones.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson declined to get into specifics Tuesday ahead of the Navy's ongoing effort to internalize findings from its two recent reviews.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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