This post has been updated to include additional comments from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson.
ARLINGTON, VA – The commander of Naval Surface Forces expressed support for the new Naval Surface Group Western Pacific as an important addition that gives voice to training and certification needs in the Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) in Japan, despite some pushback from the secretary of the Navy over the group’s formation.
The Naval Surface Group Western Pacific was stood up in the fall of 2017 after two FDNF ships based in Japan saw fatal collisions earlier in the year. U.S. Fleet Forces Command led a Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents that supported the new office, arguing the need for a rededication to training and certification efforts in the FDNF ships despite high operational demands in the Pacific.
Speaking to reporters ahead of a speech at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium, Vice Adm. Tom Rowden said the office currently reports to U.S. Pacific Fleet but will eventually report to Naval Surface Forces “to be my essentially eyes and ears on the deck of the Western Pacific vis-à-vis the responsibilities that I execute: man, train and equip.”
“[Previously] we had an organization that was focused on man, train and equip in the Western Pacific, and through previous reorganizations we shifted that to essentially dual-hatting where we had operational responsibilities and administrative responsibilities under one roof,” Rowden said.
“Clearly the stresses have caused imbalance, I would say, in the Western Pacific vis-à-vis emphasizing the operational side. But we still have to understand very clearly the man, train and equip piece. And the immediate superiors in command were just being pulled in two different directions. So to separate that out we’ve stood up the Naval Surface Group Western Pacific in order to be the advocate for the ship, be the advocate for the commanding officer and ensure that there’s a proper adjudication of operational requirements versus the manning, training and equipping requirements.”
Despite the support for this group expressed in the comprehensive review, a Strategic Readiness Review directed by Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer pushed back against the office while supporting its overall aim.
“Standing up an additional oversight layer provides another headquarters staff and administrative control function that is likely to perpetuate ambiguous and conflicting authorities,” read the review.
“Organizational structures already exist within the type commander staff at Commander Naval Surface Forces Pacific, and its subordinate Afloat Training Group organizations for appropriate responsibility. The manpower used to establish Naval Surface Group Western Pacific is better applied to fully and competently staffing the existing training commands and squadron staffs in the Western Pacific.”
Rowden said during his talk with reporters that the Naval Surface Group WESTPAC had already succeeded in elevating FDNF ship concerns and allowing any conflicts between operational and training needs to be worked out in a more deliberate way.
“Simple math tells you that when you had 600 ships and were deploying 100, and when you’ve [now] got 300 ships and you’re deploying 100, there’s more stress on the force. And we’re seeing that,” he said.
“And so I think that certainly we can raise the visibility, and if there is an adjudication that needs to occur vis-à-vis operational requirements and training and certification requirements, those are being addressed at a much higher level than they’ve been.”
Rowden said the Navy is working at the level of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO) and the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff (OPNAV) to work out the differences between the two reviews.
Later in the day, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told USNI News at a media event that “we’re going to fuse those two reports together and come up with one single consolidated comprehensive plan, and of course those very small areas that might indicate a difference, we’re going to have to resolve that, fall down on one set of recommendations. So that’s work that’s in progress.”
Richardson noted that the issue of the Naval Surface Group WESTPAC is “one area that really sticks out” as a divergence in the two reports, and “we’re meeting about that, we’re kind of figuring out the pros and cons of each approach.”
“By and large, the Strategic Readiness Review was, I think, very very supportive and consistent with the Comprehensive Review. So there’s much more in common there” than is different, Richardson reiterated, adding that the Navy is already making significant progress implementing the common recommendations. The immediate action items are largely completed at this point, he said, with the items common to both reports that take longer to implement being “in progress.” Thirdly, he said, “there’s a bin of recommendations from both reports that will take longer to study before we really start to get to the execution phase, and I would say that as we do that, the sense of urgency to get through those studies” is great.
For his part, Rowden said Naval Surface Forces is moving forward with about five dozen recommendations from the comprehensive review. Rowden said “the recommendations are not simply a list of ‘to-do’s.’ This is a cultural shift for the Surface Force and Navy to be safer and more effective at sea, and we’re all in,” according to the prepared remarks for his speech.
During Rowden’s keynote speech – his last before his retirement in February – he said the two fatal collisions in 2017 were “preventable” and that, as a result, “the basic competence and professionalism of our community warranted close examination, to leave no stone unturned to get to the root causes and make immediate, near- and long-term changes to improve the safety and effectiveness of our surface force at sea.”
In addition to speaking about the surface force’s rededication to safety and training after the collisions, Rowden also spoke about a push to increase the lethality of the surface force.
“We have demonstrated advancements in the lethality and resilience of our ships, advancements that allow us to hold potential adversaries at risk at greater range than before,” he told reporters.
“They include growth in the reach of our missiles, with the Maritime Strike Tomahawk and [destroyer USS] John Paul Jones’ testing of the Standard Missile 6; offensive enhancements to existing ships like [Littoral Combat Ship USS] Coronado firing a Harpoon Over-the-Horizon Missile and [cruiser USS] Mobile Bay destroying a training target during the first test of the updated Aegis Baseline 9 combat system.”