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Op-Ed: With fewer ships and more missions, the Navy is forced to keep ships at sea longer in the Pacific

The USS Fitzgerald (U.S. Navy)

Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services held a hearing to discuss the two deadly Navy ship collisions in the Pacific that killed 17 sailors and seriously damaged the credibility of the Navy to operate in the increasingly complex Pacific region. With fewer ships, the Navy has been forced to curtail maintenance and training for Japan-based ships for years to meet operational commitments in the region. As a result, ships like the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain went to sea with expired training certifications and operated on waivers granted through the chain-of-command, as many ships of the Japan-based 7th Fleet had done for years.

In 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the 7th Fleet’s training certifications for the cruisers and destroyers under its command, all of which are based at Yokosuka, Japan. In January 2015, the GAO reported that only 7 percent of those certifications were deficient among the 11 ships. However, in June of this year, just before the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship, the GAO found that 37 percent of those training certifications were expired, with the majority having been expired for at least five months. John H. Pendleton is a director at the GAO, and at the hearing he said: “The Navy is caught between unrelenting demands and a shortage of ships.”

And this is a large part of not only the Navy’s problem, but the American military’s problem, as well. The current U.S. Navy fleet is 20 percent percent smaller than it was two decades earlier, yet the ships are being deployed at the same rate, and often for longer periods. These continuous deployments are especially true for forward based warships like the those assigned to the 7th Fleet.

For U.S.-based warships, the Navy executes what it calls the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, or OFRP. The OFRP is a 36-month period where ships will go through four phases during its deployment cycle. Six months are designed for maintenance, eight months of training, six to seven months of deployment, and 15 months of sustainment, where the ships will operate from their home ports but be kept ready to provide a surge capability should the need arise.

Japan-based destroyers and cruisers don’t have this luxury of a deployment cycle; instead those ships are considered in a permanent deployment status, have no “ramp up” for deployment or “ramp-down” post-deployment. To keep as many ships at sea as possible, regular maintenance and training needs of those ships has often been ignored or only given partial attention. The GAO reported that its analysis of the difference between U.S.-based ships and those in Japan was staggering. For U.S.-based cruisers and destroyers, the Navy plans on having them available for deployment 41 percent of the time, with the remaining 59 percent for maintenance and training. Those ships based in Japan were planned to spend 67 percent at sea in a deployed state with 33 percent slotted for maintenance. No window of time was dedicated for training.

After the collision of the USS John S. McCain, the Navy fired the commander of the 7th Fleet and all 277 ships of the Navy were ordered to undertake an “operational pause” for at least one day to review the demands of seamanship, hopefully absorbing the realities of two deadly accidents at sea. The Navy has also ordered a comprehensive review of training, manning and operations to completed later this year.  

As it stands now, the only way to reduce the stress on the Navy is to reduce its operational commitments.  However, doing so in an era of increased North Korean tensions, Chinese naval expansion and a steadily assertive Russia is not an optimal choice. The balance between operational demand and training and maintenance must be found before more sailors’ lives are lost in the most basic of naval missions.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.

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