Something’s Wrong in the Surface Fleet and We Aren’t Talking About It


Last year the Battle of Jutland was all the rage, with the 100-year anniversary and renewed interest in a book about the lead up to naval war at the start of the 20th Century. Even naval neophytes are familiar with Adm. David Beatty’s comment that “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” uttered while British battlecruisers exploded from seemingly slight damage.

Conventional wisdom agrees that there was something inherently wrong in the design of those ships. Battlecruisers were a hybrid concept — lightly armored but heavily armed. In retrospect the design was the problem — no one blames individual ship commanders for how the ships performed. Today Beatty’s line is once again in vogue as the U.S. Navy struggles to explain three collisions and a grounding. What is different, though, is that the actions of individual ships are being blamed rather than the system that puts the fleet at risk.

In the recently released summary reports of the USS John S McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, this paragraph is near verbatim in each section:

Collisions at sea are rare and the relative performance and fault of the vessels involved is an open admiralty law issue. The Navy is not concerned about the mistakes made by [the other ship]. Instead, the Navy is focused on the performance of its ships and what we could have done differently to avoid these mishaps.

In the Navy, the responsibility of the Commanding Officer for his or her ship is absolute. Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the Commanding Officer. That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.

When these paragraphs are combined with the description of events and findings of the hybrid report and comprehensive review there is a single, clear, and overriding idea —the collisions were the ship’s fault, and only the ship’s. The subsequent Comprehensive Review was no different. Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said individuals in the recent incidents were negligent. The various messages all lead in one direction — fixing blame on the individual ships, even after identifying critical and systemic problems.

However, can someone be negligent if they don’t know what the right thing to do is? It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor. There are officers and watchstanders who failed in their roles, but not all of them failed through negligence. Some, like the helm and lee-helm on John S. McCain, failed because of ignorance. Others, like the officer of the deck in Fitzgerald failed because of hubris. A charge of negligence should be based on a core of deliberation, not happenstance.

Much is made of the two recent collision reports and the Comprehensive Review. The reports each have around two pages of events and two or more pages of findings. In many cases the findings do not clearly link to the described events. By contrast, the report for the 1952 USS Wasp and USS Hobson collision runs to 624 pages. The 1975 collision between USS John F. Kennedy and USS Belknap runs to 110 pages, without enclosures. The just-released report on USS Antietam’s 2017 grounding is 513 pages.

Navy leaders released the most recent reports (really synopses of reports) and Comprehensive Review to support preconceived conclusions. Within these reports there are conclusions, but little detail. The unreleased versions must have more, because the Navy is moving out and making decisions evident in public statements, fleet messages, and new initiatives. Or old initiatives with new names. Or old initiatives with old names brought back from the dead. All of these ideas have one thing in common — a focus on the individual ship and not the system.

Commander Naval Surface Forces, Adm. Tom Rowden, issues force-wide messages called “War Fighting Serials.” The titles of these messages say a lot about the Navy’s fixation on individual actions. This year they are “Individual Readiness,” “Toughness,” “Confidence and Competence,” and “Force-Wide Circadian Rhythm Implementation.”

Serial 13, “Confidence and Competence,” even takes away the individual ship captain’s options for standing orders, watch rotations, and maneuvering calculations. The serials are directive in nature. Working backwards the Fleet Forces Command and the chief of naval operations decided that sleep and individual actions are the source and cause of our current problems. Or, as likely, he’s decided that those are the only issues he can place emphasis on given current legislative and budgetary constraints, since none of the messages or reports remove requirements from ships but rather add another requirement in the amount of sleep. Either way, his messages remove authority from ship commanders while simultaneously increasing their accountability and culpability.

Other initiatives show the focus on ships and not the system. Surface Forces is creating a new oversight group for the Pacific, named the Naval Surface Group Western Pacific. This group is charged to

coordinate training and maintenance periods for ships forward deployed to Japan and address an organizational gap that allowed a culture to grow myopically focused on operations to the detriment of readiness.

A laudable action at face value, however, this group will further diminish the operational ownership of ship commanders and their immediate superiors in command by becoming the organization that

will examine the ship’s readiness as a whole – and certifications aside, it will raise the question,“Is this ship ready to receive operational tasking?” If the answer is no, NSGWP will recommend operational commanders defer any operational tasking until the ship is properly crewed, trained and ready to meet mission requirements.

A similar idea called Class Squadrons (CLASSRONs) was implemented in 2006 to address these same issues, fleet wide. They quietly died when new leaders recognized that ships had too many masters and that accountability above the ship commander had been diluted to nothing.

The Navy is creating a new afloat watch assessment team to add another level of inspection to ships. This assessment is a clear indication that ship commanders, and the ship’s immediate superior in command, are not trusted. Likewise, the Comprehensive Review recognized that ships have over 200 inspections and  certifications in addition to technical support and administration visits (“assist visits”) that do not consistently support crew readiness. The review’s solution is to include a new near-miss reporting process, additional trend analysis, and at least two more command assessments. The result is that ships now have 204 inspections, certifications, and assist visits. None of the reports or messages reduced a single requirement, despite lamenting how busy ships already are.

There are renewed calls for a return to the old days of fleet training groups and an Operational Propulsion Examination. Both ideas had their heyday in the post-Vietnam era and it is not surprising that some think we have a similar problem today, requiring similar solutions. However, the solutions of yesteryear will not solve today’s problems. Likewise, the problems of today are not the problems of yesteryear. None of the problems of today are solvable by old ideas – too much has changed in the interim. And none of today’s problems are solvable solely at the ship level.

Instead, while Adm. Rowden focuses on the things he can control, the shore establishment continues moving down a road that could help solve the problems and, if unchecked, will instead cause more: Ready Relevant Learning.

On its surface Ready Relevant Learning is another laudable idea. Provide Navy training in reconfigurable classrooms or via electronic course content delivery when and where sailors need it. The system will save time and money. However, we’ve heard this line before and need only reread the Balisle Report to see what happened then. What assurances will there be that things will turn out different this time? One of the more dangerous ideas in Ready Relevant Learning is sending untrained sailors to ships, then during the ship tours taking those same sailors and sending them to schools. Which leaves a gap for the ship while a sailor is getting training that was once provided before reporting. Ready Relevant Learning is coming, yet you might not think so because it was buried deep in the Comprehensive Review. The review looked backwards, but fails to see what coming plans may do to the Navy.

These initiatives seek to find the best solution at the lowest price. Not cost. The opportunity costs in each of these initiatives is staggering. Centralized instructions, centralized training, centralized control. All in an era when the Army is pressing forward with mission command.

The Navy is charged by law with organizing, training, and equipping in preparation for prompt and sustained combat operations. Individual ship commanders bear the final burden in the chain of command, however, those commanders are wholly hostage to the Navy system which provides sailors, trains those sailors, and equips the ships.

Manning is determined at least two years out in budget submissions to Congress. And while ships are no longer in the optimal manning era, the billets they were designed to carry were not completely bought back. If a ship is not fully manned all a commander can do is tell his boss. Who tells his boss. Who tells his boss. None of whom can actually do anything except rob from USS Peter to pay USS Paul.

Any unplanned loss to illness, death, or poor performance is unlikely to be replaced. Today’s ship captains often have to suffer through poor performance in their crews because even a poor performer is better than no one in the job. There are reports today that the Navy is short 14,000 sailors at sea. In October, there were almost 17,000 open billets with less than 3,000 available sailors. This didn’t happen overnight and individual ships are being put at risk by shore commands who have no responsibility, accountability, or culpability — but who do retain all the authority.

Most training is completely outside the purview of the ship captain, his boss, or Adm. Rowden. The Navy’s vast array of schoolhouses plan out five years in advance. And they plan for available seats based on arcane math and incantations. They do not plan out based on Fleet need. If there are 300 ships who need four sailors trained to Navy Enlisted Classification Code 24601 for four-year sea tours, then annual throughput needs to be at least 300. If the Navy only has 250 seats because of physical plant capacity or budget, then the fleet is left with a shortfall and the school commanders are not held accountable for the discrepancy.

One historical solution is to reduce the requirement. In the Navy Enlisted Classification 24601 example, reducing the ship requirement from four to three solves the school throughput problem. Everything looks great on paper, but the ship ends up manned to 75 percent of what it was intended to have in that particular code. Multiply that by 20, 30, or even 100 and you end up with ship’s playing five card draw with three cards.

For USS John S. McCain, training for the helm console was called out in the collision report and Comprehensive Review. Buried in the report was this:

[I]n USS John S. McCain, which had recently received the IBNS upgrade, the consolidated manning and training impact assessment provided to the ship ahead of her last modernization period omitted training requirements for enlisted rates that stand watch at the helm.

The ship’s commanding officer had no control over this and the decisions behind this omission are not reported. However, the ship’s lack of knowledge was repeatedly pointed out and the ship’s commanding officer got the blame. Who cancelled the training? No one is saying. But whoever it was bears significant culpability in what happened. In his press conference, Adm. Richardson repeatedly lay blame at the feet of the crew and commanding officer. He never highlighted that someone off ship did not provide the needed training.

Maintenance is another house of cards. The Comprehensive Review and Balisle Report each recognize that maintenance impacts operations. Maintenance funds are budgeted two years out. And shipyard periods are planned at least 90 days out. Ships enter the yards and get things fixed to what the budget allows, not what the ship needs. And many maintenance actions are deferred for cost savings, even though the maintenance was part of the ship’s design. Amphibious ship ballast tanks are notorious for this. The Navy might save money up front, but loses money down the line because eventually that deferred maintenance needs to get done. An illustrative, but imperfect analogy is waiting to replace your car’s oil until the engine seizes up.

None of which looks at the budget problems that groundings and collisions cause. Those accidents are not budgeted for. The Navy does not have an insurance policy for catastrophic damage. Once again Peter pays Paul but instead of sailors, maintenance funds are shifted from one ship to another. And none of this is helped by the legislative malpractice of recent budgets. If something aboard ship is broken all the captain can do is have his sailors try and fix it (even if this isn’t allowed), complain to his boss, or accept the poor condition. None of which are good options.

The Navy would be a great place if it wasn’t for all those ships. It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor. Blaming ships and ship commanders for what is, when they don’t know what ought to be.

To recap:

Ships are busy, no one is willing to slow down the operational pace. Ship commanders have no control. Adm. Rowden has little control. Ship maintenance isn’t fully funded. Ship commanders have no control. Adm. Rowden has little control. Ships aren’t fully manned to the reduced level. Ship commanders have no control. Adm. Rowden has little control. Sailors can’t get into training schools. Ship commanders have no control. Surface Forces has little control.

So what can Navy do?

First, stop protecting the system by blaming the crews. And that includes blaming the ship commanding officer, executive officer, and command master chief for instances when the system failed them and they just weren’t good enough to pull a royal flush out of a poorly dealt hand. Certainly, the system took some hits in the Comprehensive Review, but even the proposed actions only deal with symptoms and not embedded cultural or systemic off-ship decisions.

Second, buy enough billets to man ships to their designed manning. Their designed wartime manning. Why wartime? Because we all know that any modern naval war will start and finish before the system will catch up. There’s no Franklin Roosevelt on the horizon to force a Two Ocean Navy Act into existence.

Third, cancel the upcoming rotational deployments for the ships involved in hurricane relief operations.

Fourth, stop talking about recommissioning old ships. If the Navy is already short on people and maintenance money, more ships will only makes things worse. Fully man, train, and equip the fleet America has before adding more ships to the equation.

Fifth, end the concept of absolute culpability for ship captains. If accountability for command is absolute, then isn’t the chief of naval operations in command of the Navy? If he isn’t, then who is? Is he not also culpable for these incidents? Barbara Starr asked this exact question on Nov. 2. Adm. Richardson’s response was that he owns the problem, feels responsible, but insisted he has the confidence of the fleet. Given that Adm. Richardson hasn’t been underway in some time, I wonder how he can claim this knowledge. I’m certain some will see my comment as disrespectful, or even impudent. I’d rather claim that I feel empowered to speak up. That I am speaking the courage of my convictions, and doing so before the extremis. We either have a culture of forceful backup, where the chief of naval operations will not feel threatened by this, or we do not.

The Navy, especially the surface fleet, is now victim of a pervasive “strategy of means.” We’ve sought efficiency over effectiveness. The lowest common denominator in training, schools, and spending suffices and replaces what must be spent to achieve operational capability. This thinking is not good stewardship, rather it makes everyone less safe. The surface fleet — at the leadership and organizational level — has been told to “do more with less” so long that it seems incapable of doing anything else.

There is something wrong with our ships today, but it is not the ship’s crews or commanding officers who are to blame. Rather, the design of the system, which is well outside their purview, should take the brunt of responsibility and culpability. Our ship commanders long ago lost absolute authority. It’s time we stopped pretending and also recognized they should no longer have absolute culpability.


Capt. Michael Junge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently serving in the Joint Military Operations Department of the U.S. Naval War College. He commanded USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) and served in amphibious assault ships, destroyers, and frigates. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. However, his cat is perfectly happy if this article gets him in trouble.

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