Home » Budget Industry » Navy Stands Up Naval Surface Group Western Pacific To Train, Certify Forward-Deployed Surface Ships After Recent Collisions


Navy Stands Up Naval Surface Group Western Pacific To Train, Certify Forward-Deployed Surface Ships After Recent Collisions

USS Benfold (DDG-65), left, and the Henry J. Kaiser-class fleet replenishment oiler USNS Pecos (T-AO 197) participate in a photo exercise during Pacific Griffin 2017 off the coast of Guam. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated to include additional information from the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

CAPITOL HILL – The Navy is creating a new Naval Surface Group Western Pacific to train and certify forward-deployed surface ships operating out of Japan and has begun additional readiness assessments and certifications, after four surface ship collisions and groundings in the region that killed 17 sailors this year.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “what we do is inherently dangerous. It is a leadership responsibility to ensure we provide the right oversight and training to keep our team at their operational peak. We are taking immediate actions to prevent another mishap,” according to his prepared opening remarks.

To that end, the Navy “commenced Readiness for Sea Assessments (RFSA) for all ships assigned to Japan, to inspect and assess watchstander proficiency and material readiness to ensure ships are able to safely navigate, communicate and operate. Immediate remediation will be conducted for ships found deficient, and they will not be assigned for operational tasking until they are certified to be ready.”

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson delivers remarks in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15, 2017. US NAvy Photo

More broadly in the surface ship community, “we have commenced a review of certifications of each ship, to include developing a plan for each to regain currency and proficiency across all certification areas. All waivers for ships whose certification has expired will now be approved by the Pacific Fleet Commander.”

In addition, the PACFLT commander is standing up the Naval Surface Group Western Pacific “to consolidate authorities to oversee the training and certification of forward-deployed ships based in Japan.”

On the personnel readiness side, Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Tom Rowden recently mandated that ship crews move to a 24-hour circadian rhythm watchstanding rotation, to allow sailors to get regularly scheduled sleep that their bodies can adjust to, Richardson explained during the hearing. This schedule had been recommended previously and implemented on some ships, but now all surface ships will develop this type of schedule for at-sea operations. Richardson said the change has not yet been mandated for ships in port, but that in-port workload and watchstanding rotation is being studied now. Additionally, to combat the 100-plus hours a week sailors sometimes work – which contributes to lack of sleep – “we’re starting to respond to that by supplementing the crews,” he said.

“There are measurable degradations in decision-making and in performance” when sailors do not get proper sleep, CNO noted.

On the ship side, Richardson said that simple steps such as turning on warships’ automatic identification system (AIS), which shows the location of commercial and military ships in the water, would increase warships’ visibility in congested waterways and potentially prevent future mishaps. The material readiness of the forward-deployed surface ships will also become more of a priority, with problems involving ship control systems being given an increased priority for repairs going forward, Richardson added.

On Aug. 21 Richardson directed and operational pause to ensure commands around the globe could stop and focus on basic operations and safety. He said in his opening statement that “the pause yielded results across all communities to promote a renewed focus on safety, communication and professionalism in the execution of ‘routine’ operations. Leaders at every level addressed fighting against over-confidence, inattention, and complacency through emphasis on adherence to procedures and on applying sound operational risk management procedures. We will continue to enhance our safety culture in which each sailor is empowered to act to control hazards before they become a mishap.”

In addition to measures to make future operations safer, the Navy has reprimanded 20 sailors in the aftermath of the fatal USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions this year, SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during his opening statement. A Navy official confirmed that number to USNI News and said those reprimands went to a range of senior enlisted sailors and junior officers charged with operating the bridge and combat information center Fitzgerald and McCain.

These punishments come on top of six officers being removed from their positions as a result of the fatal crashes: the command triad of Fitzgerald, commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson, executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and command master chief CMC Brice Baldwin; U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who was relieved of duty just weeks ahead of his planned retirement; and Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of Combined Task Force 70, and Capt. Jeffery Bennett, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15, who were removed from their jobs earlier this week.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer noted in his opening statement at the hearing that these immediate changes and punishments were not the end of the Navy’s effort to improve the surface fleet and would be followed up by longer-term and higher-level changes.

Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Richard V. Spencer delivers remarks during the christening ceremony for the littoral combat ship USS Charleston (LCS-18) on Aug. 26, 2017. US Navy Photo

“We have a problem in the Navy and we’re going to fix it. In addition to the investigations already initiated, we are conducting two thorough reviews,” he said.
“The CNO’s Comprehensive Review will take a look at the tactical and operational situation. My Strategic Readiness Review will be an independent team comprised of military and industry experts that will look at and examine root causes, accountability, long term systemic issues, and then provide remedial insight. These reviews will complement and enhance each other, providing the depth and criticality the situation demands.

Without deflecting blame from the Navy, Richardson did acknowledge a “triple whammy” dealt by Congress – “the corrosive confluence of high operational tempo, constrained funding levels, and budget uncertainty” – as a contributor to readiness problems in the service. He said the Navy had been asked to do more with less, with operational requirements taking away from training and maintenance time and forcing surface ship crews to be on station more often and sometimes with less notice.

“None of these can excuse our commanders from adherence to the absolute standard to develop safe and effective teams. And when we fall short of the ideal, we must make a thoughtful assessment of the results, and where necessary put mitigations in place. If the situation becomes untenable and we cannot meet the standard, we must not deploy until we’re ready. It is the diligence and leadership of our commanding officers at every level that will implement the changes needed to ensure our Navy remains the world’s most capable Navy,” he said.
“These incidents demand our full attention to provide our Sailors the necessary resources and training to execute their assigned missions. I own this problem. I am accountable for the safe and effective operations of our Navy, and we will fix this. I am confident that our Navy will identify the root causes and correct them, and that we’ll be better in the end. I look forward to your questions.”

  • John Locke

    Interesting.
    Where does ATGWP fit in there?

    • kaigun2

      Indeed.

    • Sounds like the exact same mission as ATGWP. When I first heard of this, I thought they were upgrading ATGWP back to a senior CAPT command rather than a post-afloat command CDR. Apparently not.

      Speaking as former ATGWP staff, we had a lot more “teeth” to protect the training schedule with a CAPT CO, and the Surface Force Training Manual wasn’t as needlessly complicated and burdensome. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not faulting anyone at ATGWP for the latest issues. This sounds like adding complication rather than giving ATGWP teeth, manning, and training time with ships to do the job it’s already assigned.

  • CharleyA

    Senior leadership must learn how to say “unable” when asked to do more with less. It’s just that simple.

    • David B. Brown

      Never happen. Any CO that says his ship is not ready to deploy will not be CO very long. He will gundeck it and hope for the best, as always.

      • CharleyA

        And there is the problem.

        • Curtis Conway

          The Chain of Command has pushed the can so far down the road . . . we are unable to “do” with what we have, and are “dying” in the attempt. I though we were supposed to transcend the Charge of the Light Brigade.

      • Western

        You are the culture you make for yourself. Our captain delayed our deployment from Scotland for three days until spare parts for our ice cream machine were flown to us from Charleston.
        Not sure how SUBLANT thought of it, but the crew thought we were pretty important to the Captain, and acted accordingly. We always kicked butt on performance.

        • OldHickory21

          That’s a great story Western…..sounds like a great CO…..and Ill bet you guys talked about that one over beers at The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms when you got back from deployment too! You are right: The Captain creates the culture.

          “We have no problems….only challenges and opportunities to excel.”

    • leroy

      That’s mostly the job of the CNO. He (and others in the past) obviously shied from it. You see, a man has got to be willing to resign in protection of his men/women, service, country and principles. In today’s career-minded military, that’s not a part of senior leadership’s vocabulary.

    • Ed L

      So sad. That the truth is always hated

  • leroy

    With war on the horizon against Rocket Man, they better move fast!

  • leroy

    The Navy has been resting on its laurels for the last few decades. Ever since the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union disappeared and no one ever thought we’d face major combat operations for the foreseeable future. Wrong!

    We need to be on the same footing, take warfighting capabilities and abilities with the same seriousness as we did from 1945 up until 1991. We obviously have not operated with the same sense of urgency and alertness drummed into Officers and sailors of the recent past.

    Time for the USN to undergo a major attitude change and time to do it now! Shake the entire organization up so they think and operate just like forward-deployed Army, AF, Navy and Marine forces do today in South Korea. Yes boys and girls, COIN, where you never really expect an attack against a ship, is not the mindset to be in. I am shocked that “good enough” seems to be the culture of passivity and complacency found in today’s training and operations. NO EXCUSES!

    • John Locke

      There aren’t any ships homeported in ROK. There’s some small naval facilities in Chinhae and staff at USNFK in Busan but the ships that support ops in ROK usually come out of Yokosuka and Sasebo.

      • leroy

        When I say forces I don’t mean just ships. Ancillary forces are included in that too.

    • Duane

      Hold on. Things change. Threats change. A navy is a large bureaucratic organization – there is no other way to be a navy – and so changes in the Navy always comes in reaction to external changes, and slower than many wish for.

      If you think we’re unprepared now, better check your history books. The US Navy in 1941 was completely unprepared for WW Two. Pearl Harbor happened, and it still took us another year and a half into that war, including lots of fumbling, sunk ships, killed crew, failures to sink enemy ships with crappy torpedoes, relieved ship COs and admirals, and a good bit of luck (i.e., Midway) etc. etc. before the Navy that won the Pacific war finally emerged via trial by fire.

      We need to evolve our navy, but let’s not overreact to a couple of headline incidents. There is much that is right about what we have and can do now. We still have the world’s most capable navy, by far, it’s not remotely close. But it is not good enough yet – we have much work to do.

      • leroy

        I disagree. Two of our best DDGs hit two large merchants in such a short period of time speaks to something systemically wrong in today’s USN. We have to get to the root cause of it because if we go to war, operations are gonna get a lot tougher than simply navigating through busy shipping channels.

        From monitoring the approach of enemy subs to out of nowhere GQ sounding the approach of incoming anti-shipping missiles (I hope crews would detect them and know enough to sound GQ), 24/7 operations will get a lot tougher. (cont thanks to Disqus spam filter!).

        • leroy

          We train like we fight, and given the inexcusable (seemingly) lackadaisical nature of these two close-aboard (time-wise) incidents, we are at an unacceptable state of readiness should we need to go to war. Maybe not the entire Navy, but large parts of it.

          We need to sail like we fight, and these two ships would have been unable to fight in a shooting war. That’s my conclusion. I want to see a big-time culture change. It’s gonna take an iron-willed CNO to make that happen. Congress needs to obviously do their part too.

        • Duane

          I’m not talking about the two recent collisions, and neither were you in the comment I responded to … you were making claims of global non-readiness that are, first of all, not substantiated, and second of all, cannot be inferred from 2 ships of 277 ships suffering incidents.

          • leroy

            It’s more than two ships not being at proper levels of readiness. I heard a report today that about 1/3rd of all Navy ship training quals have expired, but they are still out operating (web search “Fox News Senate lawmakers grill Navy Youtube” and listen to the report from their Pentagon correspondent.

            Often a virus in the human body doesn’t show up until years after infection. Same can happen in an organization. I think there’s been a problem for a long time, but luck has kept this from bubbling to the surface.

            And it may be a SWO issue. They closed their Navy Surface Training Center and replaced it with computer aids and on-the-job training. A mistake according to Richardson. Also 100 hr workweeks. But I think that only scratches the surface. The problem probably runs deeper than just that. We’ll find out.

          • Duane

            An expired certification is certainly not desired. But at the same time, an expired certification does not necessarily mean that training wasn’t performed. It just means it wasn’t certified by a certifier. We know already from the same GAO report that the Seventh Fleet has a shortage of qualified certifiers to perform the training certs.

            Is it possible that every ship with an expired training cert is “untrained”? Possible, yes, plausible, no. Should we make certain we have enough certifiers available? Yes, of course. That is why the Commander of Seventh Fleet was relieved early, among probably other reasons too. It was his job to provide the certifiers. Then when provided, it’s the certifiers job to ascertain the training status of the ships in the fleet.

          • leroy

            “It just means it wasn’t certified by a certifier.”

            C’mon Duane! OK. We are in disagreement. I’ll leave it at that because something tells me even 100 back and forth comments will not change your or my mind. I know you. You’ll carry on a very long exchange. I’m not into that. I hear your opinion but do not agree with it.

  • Duane

    This is a good early step and process to institute (along with the reliefs of a couple of admirals in the Seventh Fleet). Not sufficient. The various investigation reports are going to be very interesting reading when they come out, but it will take considerable time … probably months not weeks. And there will almost certainly be some divergence in conclusions between the various investigative bodies, so some form of reconciliation will be required.

  • Jim Barden

    Typical Navy freakout response in a political crisis. Hey, OOD’s, keep your head on a swivel and demand top performance from the watch standers on your team. When in doubt, call the Captain, like it says in the standing orders. That is all.

  • Brent Leatherman

    I’ve got no particular sympathy for the senior folks, but let me see if I understand the situation among the junior watchstanders. The powers that be have stated that the sailors need additional training and certification to execute their mission, but are punishing the sailors for not having that very same training that they’re adding.

    • Matthew Schilling

      How much training does it take to pilot a nimble destroyer and NOT hit a slow moving ship as big as a ball field?

      • Brent Leatherman

        One helluva lo, actuallyt.

  • OldHickory21

    I like what the CNO is doing by standing up the Surface Group WestPac…..the Navy needs a lot more infrastructure and oversight out there for units in the Far East. It’s no coincidence that these collisions, groundings, accidents as well as the Fat Leonard scandals happened out there. The farther components are from the CNOs office, the harder it is for him to know what the heck is goIng on out there. There’s been far too much slack in the line out there in WestPac. Time to tighten up, and one way to do it is to put more eyes on the operational units out there.

  • Gundog15

    I may be old fashioned, but I thought there was real value in going through refresher training in Gitmo. The Fleet Training Group owned you and struck fear in the hearts of the Sailors when they marched across the brow. It took us a week just to pass setting material condition yoke! The best part was that all hands were involved in learning how to fight the ship. No one stood around with funny colored training team hats on. There was real motivation for getting through Reftra. As long as the FTG was onboard, every aspect of ship operations was under incredible scrutiny. You either got it right, or you didn’t leave Gitmo. I went through Reftra in Gitmo before six deployments on three different ships and none of those ships ran aground or got hit by a container ship. Maybe it’s time to go back to what used to work in the past. It’s got to be cheaper than rebuilding DDGs and certainly less painful than burying Sailors.

  • Tony4

    It is the CNO’s responsibility to tell CJCS, SECNAV, the Combatant Commabders, and Congress that the USN can not maintain an excessive OPTEMPO – his alone.

  • Seth Block

    There is a need for more ships, but before you have more ships there is a desperate need for getting back to the basics of proper training, maintenance, seafaring, ship handling, war fighting, there is probably no area that does not need improvement. So the Navy instead is spending money on another version of uniform, glasses to help already exhausted sailors to fall asleep and lets not begin discussing the money wasted on ships like the Zumwalt and LCS classes of ships. I suspect there are way too many admirals and not nearly enough qualified E-5’S actually running the fleet, perhaps these people are just weighted down with the enormity of gedunk ribbons which are in effect celebrating inefficiency and probably has lost it’s morale building intentions. I believe that an entire overhaul of the military is in order, that it no longer has to be a social experiment and must get back to the job of destroying it’s enemies with overwhelming force. When an outsider or lay person looks under the covers of what appears to be going on today and what has been allowed to incubate the past ten years it is a frightening picture… mine is just an uninformed opinion through the eyes of what was once a sailors.