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Pacific Fleet commander vows to fix Navy culture that triggered crashes

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott H. Swift (Alejandro Tamayo/San Diego Union Tribune/TNS)

Troubled by destroyer crashes that drowned 17 sailors over the summer, the Navy has launched a special team to beef up crew training and change a culture that put missions above safety.

In Honolulu, Adm. Scott H. Swift established the Naval Surface Group Western Pacific. Headquartered in the Japanese port of Yokosuka, the detachment is designed to oversee the training and certification of forward-deployed surface warships.

Initially reporting directly to Swift, the team comes armed with the power to veto a warship for operations in the Western Pacific or assign commanders and their crews to remedial training before a vessel puts to sea.

In a news release on Tuesday, Swift said that he formed the group to bridge an organizational gap in the Navy’s 7th Fleet that “allowed a culture to grow myopically focused on operations to the detriment of readiness.”

On Jan. 31, the cruiser Antietam ran aground on rocks along the Japanese coast. Less than five months later, the cruiser Lake Champlain bashed a South Korean fishing boat. Then came the deadly June 17 destroyer Fitzgerald crash with a merchant vessel and, on Aug. 21, the lethal collision of an oil tanker with the destroyer John S. McCain east of Singapore.

Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Sibayan of Chula Vista and Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass of Oceanside were two of the seven sailors killed in the Fitzgerald disaster.

Swift expects the detachment eventually will fall under Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the Coronado-based commander of Naval Surface Forces. Rowden said that he expected the detachment to be his eyes and ears in the Western Pacific.

“Not only to consider the operations we have to execute, but also to ensure we understand how we are going to properly generate the readiness we need,” he said.

Swift announced his retirement on Sept. 25, a week after news broke that Rowden also planned to retire.

Swift has named Capt. Richard Dromerhauser, a former commander of the Fitzgerald, as the detachment’s first commodore.

“I am here to protect the most precious resource we have — time; time for the maintenance and modernization of our systems and time for the focused training that builds the confidence and competence to fight and win at sea,” Dromerhauser said in a prepared statement. “This is about taking care of our entire Navy family and ensuring that they have the resources and tools to get the job done right.”

A Bay Shore, N.Y., native and Naval Academy grad, Dromerhauser recently commanded Destroyer Squadron 60 and Task Force 65 in Naples, Italy.

Along with the Fitzgerald, he also has commanded the coastal patrol ship Tempest and the multinational task force that destroyed the chemical agents surrendered by Syria in 2014.

Dromerhauser will direct a staff of 30 to 50 experts in maritime engineering, safety, maintenance, seamanship and training.

Mirroring the Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific and a similar detachment in Bahrain, the organization will scrutinize all crew training and credentialing after a vessel emerges from non-routine maintenance.

In the past, hardworking ATGs — sailors in Afloat Training Group Western Pacific — would board warships at various times in a deployment cycle to snatch time with the commanders and their crews, but Swift wants the new detachment to be more systematic.

“It was more like targets of opportunity,” Navy spokesman Cmdr. John Perkins said. “The ATGs would go out and do continuing training and credentialing, but it wasn’t like what is being envisioned for the detachment.”


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