Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Navy Operations

There have been a spate of incidents lately with Navy ships, including two instances of destroyers colliding with merchant ships resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors.  As a former Surface Warfare Officer, I take a personal interest in things like this and looked into it.  What I found was appalling.  Junior offices aren't getting the training they need and the ships are being run way too hard with no downtime for training and maintenance.  I got so pissed off that I could (literally) not see straight.  I calmed down today enough to write my useless Senators and Congressman.  The problems with the Navy are directly attributable to Congressional malfeasance with regards to the Defense budget.  Rather than repeat myself, here's what I wrote to them:

There have been several incidents over the past several months of Navy ships running aground, colliding with civilian ships, or having other accidents.  As a former Navy Surface Warfare Officer, this is of grave concern to me.  Several articles in professional military journals have noted that this spate of incidents can be traced to three things: poor training for surface warfare officers, extremely high operational tempo, and inadequate time for maintenance and upkeep.  All three have their roots in inadequate funding, something that Congress can, and must, fix.

When I was a junior officer, I went through months of training, including 16 weeks in the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS).  Here, we received intensive training on maritime rules of the road, ship driving, engineering, navigation, supply procedures, preventive maintenance, and much much more.  We spent considerable time in simulators, including ship driving and damage control.  This class was critical to making me functional when I reported to my ship.  However, that school no longer exists.  It was closed down in 2003 due to budget cuts.  Instead, junior officers were given a stack of CDs and told to go through them after they report to their ships.  So for the past 14 years, the Navy has been sending untrained officers to run billion-dollar surface ships.  At the same time, the officers have to run their divisions, take care of their people, stand watch, carry out their collateral duties, and earn their qualifications.  This is a recipe for disaster.  Would you give a stack of CD’s to a young college graduate and tell him to learn how to fly commercial airliners on the job?  Essentially, that’s what the Navy surface warfare officers have had to do for the past 14 years.

This has been compounded by staffing issues.  For decades, the Navy has worked on ship designs to minimize the size of the crews.  This approach assumes that all personnel are perfectly qualified to do their jobs from Day 1.  As we’ve seen, that is not the case.  The situation is made worse by not even having the personnel to fill all the billets. 

The second issue is operational tempo.  My first ship was homeported in Japan.  We were underway 75% of the time.  Since then, the number of ships has dropped, but the number of ship-days deployed has remained the same.  That means that all ships are being run harder than ever.  That leads directly to the third issue: lack of maintenance.  Navy warships are extremely complex machines.  They are routinely operated in manners that put high levels of stress on all their systems.  Keeping them fully operational requires a lot of time pierside to carry out preventive maintenance and fix the things that wear out or break.  Our ships are not getting that time pierside.  Instead, the under-manned and under-trained sailors and officers are expected to keep the ships operating with baling wire and bubblegum.  When they’re not trying to learn the systems, that is, because they weren’t trained on the systems in the first place.

And this has been going on for FOURTEEN YEARS.  When most Navy careers end soon after 20 years, this means that a whole generation of Navy surface officers have lacked the training to effectively do their jobs.  They have to learn on the go.  Which means that they learn maybe 20% of what they really need to know.

You, sir, as a Senator, bear responsibility for this state of affairs.  Despite years of warnings by senior leaders in the Navy and other services, you have failed to provide adequate budgets for training, operations, and maintenance.  You have failed to eliminate sequestration and that has severely limited the military’s ability to adjust to limited resources.  At the same time, you have stood by and allowed our operational requirements to remain the same while reducing the resources to accomplish them.

Our military can no longer do more with less.  We can do more if you provide the resources.  If you won’t, then we have to do less.  Or more of our sailors will be killed.

The sailors who died on the John S. McCain and the Fitzgerald weren't killed by their Commanding Officers or by the officers on watch, or even by an enemy like the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or North Korea.  They were killed by senior Navy officers who allowed this to happen, and by Congressmen and Senators who failed to provide adequate funds and resources.  There is so much blame, and so many people responsible.  Unfortunately, probably none of them will be held accountable.  Instead, the CO of the ships will take the fall, while the flag officers and Congressmen who cut the resources will continue on their merry way.

You, sir, should end sequestration and provide an adequate budget for our fleet sailors.  Failure to act on your part will kill more sailors.  It’s as simple as that.

Your constituent,
William E. Rohde, CDR, USN (Ret)
Mars Hill, NC

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