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Navy looks at increasing tour lengths for sailors assigned to Japan

USS Monterey (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Billy Ho/US Navy)

The Navy wants sailors to spend more time on their overseas assignments, the service’s personnel chief said.

Vice Adm. Robert Burke, who serves as chief of Naval Personnel and deputy chief of Naval Operations, told sailors and family members at Yokosuka Wednesday that Japan tour lengths could increase to four years.

Most overseas tours for military personnel have been capped at two or three years and that’s a problem, he said.

“A sailor gets [to Japan and] they’re taking 12 to 18 to learn their training and then maybe doing their job for a short months period of time before it’s time for them to move again,” Burke said. “That puts the commands in a state of continuously having to train up their people and not having a seasoned, experienced crew that can train up the new junior folks.”

Both single sailors and those with families would get four-year orders overseas, he said. Those already in Japan would keep the same rotation date but be offered incentives to stay longer, such as extra pay or orders to a duty station of their choice after finishing their overseas tour.

Short tour lengths may have contributed to manning issues in the Japan-based 7th Fleet, which suffered collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain that killed 17 sailors last year.

“There probably is a lower overall level of readiness that results from the higher level of churn that you get in the forward deployed naval fleet as opposed to the [U.S. mainland-based] forces,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Burke said the 7th Fleet and other forward-deployed forces will be prioritized when it comes to manning and that sailors completing basic training will receive orders to overseas forces before others.

“Those sailors are going to begin showing up February, March of this year in large numbers,” he said.

The Navy touts overseas tours as a plus for sailors, suggesting that they tend to receive promotions faster than their stateside peers due to the high operational tempo of forward-deployed units. Some, however, say the work rate makes longer tours a hardship.

“For a sailor who may never have been to Japan before to be posted there for four or five years can be asking a lot, and the op-tempo can lead to significant burnout,” said Steven Stashwick, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve who left active duty in 2015 after a decade as a surface warfare officer.

That’s especially true for operations specialists and sonar technicians who “find themselves on much more intense watch rotations than their stateside counterparts due to the nature of the waters and operations that the ships in 7th Fleet conduct,” he said.

“Even someone who came to Japan full of motivation can start to look forward to going back stateside after a while,” Stashwick said.


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