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Admiral says Navy has upgraded fire safety, plans to deploy advanced Zumwalt destroyer

Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener (US Navy/Released)

The U.S. Navy is facing challenges in getting ships to sea to meet the demands of its operational commanders, according to the San Diego-based admiral who took the reins of the service’s surface forces last year. But Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said Thursday he is encouraged by recent improvements.

Problems with the Navy’s littoral combat ships, faulty new technology and the loss of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard to fire in San Diego last year have stressed a fleet already under scrutiny in the wake of two deadly ship collisions in 2017.

“We’re still not meeting goals,” said Kitchener, the commander of Naval Surface Forces, about the push-and-pull between the demands of operations and the needs of ships to undergo maintenance in port. “It’s something we need to continue to work on.”

As the San Diego-based commander of Naval Surface Forces, Kitchener is responsible for ensuring the manning, equipping and maintenance of the Navy’s surface warships. He spoke to reporters Thursday while visiting the Pentagon. Kitchener talked about new measures the Navy has implemented in the wake of the devastating Bonhomme Richard fire last year, saying the service has added new protocols for fire safety for ships undergoing maintenance.

Immediately after the July 2020 fire, he said, Navy inspectors visited ships in maintenance yards to assess whether crews were complying with safety regulations and found that not all were.

“We found that in some cases, maybe we weren’t doing as well as we should have,” Kitchener said.

The Navy hired fire marshals, he said, whose jobs are to educate civilian contractors and ship crews on safety. The service also invested in high-end fire detection systems and added industrial-environment safety training at its surface-officer school in Rhode Island, he said.

The Navy is also planning on deploying the stealthy guided-missile destroyer Zumwalt in 2022, Kitchener said, although he didn’t specify the type of deployment beyond a couple of possible exercises. He pointed to the role another Zumwalt-class destroyer — the Michael Monsoor — played in a large exercise off San Diego this year, in which the ship served as a command center for multiple unmanned ships, subs and aircraft. Both ships are based here.

When pressed about recently abandoned and expensive technological fumbles, such as the Zumwalt’s $800,000 per-round gun and the electromagnetic rail gun, Kitchener said the Navy needs to have “rigor” in its land-based testing of new technology to make sure it is mature before being pushed to ships.

Kitchener also pointed to the new Mariner Skills Training Centers the service is opening in San Diego and Norfolk as part of the Navy’s investment in training its sailors after two fatal collisions in 2017.

“When I was a junior officer, you’d have flash cards you look at and a written test,” Kitchener said. Another program the Navy tried in the early 2000s — derisively known as “SWO (surface warfare officer) in a box” — involved sending officers to ships with a box of training DVDs.

“Not a good idea — it didn’t work very well for us,” he said. The simulation-based training at the new centers puts officers in situations where they have to make the right decision under pressure, something Kitchener said is one of the biggest improvements in training.

As for any gaps in operations left by the destruction of the Bonhomme Richard and combining-gear problems on some littoral combat ships, Kitchener said the Navy has found solutions, including the arrival of the newest amphibious-assault ship in the fleet, the Tripoli.

“We were fortunate the Tripoli was coming out,” he said. The ship arrived in San Diego late last year.

Freedom-class variants of the littoral combat ship, he said, continue to operate in counter-narcotic roles near South America despite the well-known design flaw in their propulsion systems.

“We still have Freedom-class ships deployed down south,” Kitchener said, adding that the ships are operating under an advisory not to perform in certain ways that might cause their combing gears to fail.

A fix for the ships has already passed shore-based testing and the new gear is being installed on one of the ships in the Wisconsin yard where they’re built. Kitchener said that ship should be out for tests this fall.

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