Navy, Congress Looking to Clarify Command and Control of U.S. Pacific Fleet

January 18, 2018 8:07 PM
The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), left, and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conduct dual aircraft carrier strike group operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. US Navy photo.

CAPITOL HILL – The Navy and lawmakers are considering how to clarify the chain of command for forward-deployed surface forces to ensure future readiness and accountability while service leadership insists it has done a sufficient job holding accountable those who contributed to last year’s fatal destroyer collisions.

With criminal charges levied against six individuals who were present on destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) when they collided with merchant ships last year, and firings that include the destroyer squadron commander, the local task force commander, the U.S. 7th Fleet commander and the commander of Naval Surface Forces, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said the Navy is holding senior leadership accountable to a degree not seen since World War II.

“The accountability actions addressed those things for which those commanders had complete ownership – they had the responsibility, accountability and authority to act to avoid the series of decisions that resulted in either a collision or an assignment of a ship that wasn’t ready to do its mission,” Richardson explained during a hearing at the House Armed Services Committee today.
“So each one of those was appreciated on its individual merit, and we strongly believe the accountability measures were appropriate.”

Richardson told reporters after the hearing that criminal charges were limited to those physically on the ships during the collisions with the mindset that, “with respect to the proximate cause of the collisions, there was nothing that was outside the commanding officer’s and the crew’s span of control to prevent those collisions.”

Ultimately, Richardson said “I am responsible for crushing any obstacles that prevent our sailors from achieving warfighting and safe operations at sea,” and Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer said at the hearing that he was “the responsible one and accountable for our most valuable resources.”

However, one HASC member at the hearing pointed the finger higher up the Navy.

“I also would like you to take more responsibility that the McCain and Fitzgerald were basically 20 years old, and training that goes on those ships, and the fact that they’re in Yokosuka and not being maintained like everything else, is really a function of, I think, higher-up decisions than what you are concerned with,” Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) said at the hearing.

Part of the confusion regarding accountability deals with a complex chain of command for forces operating in the Pacific. A 2011 legislative statement, now called the Inouye Amendment, states that “none of the funds available to the Department of Defense may be obligated to modify command and control relationships to give Fleet Forces Command administrative and operational control of U.S. Navy forces assigned to the Pacific fleet” and that “the command and control relationships which existed on October 1, 2004, shall remain in force unless changes are specifically authorized in a subsequent Act.”

Due to this language, still in effect, Richardson said at the hearing, “the way that this amendment was structured allows really two standards to emerge. We need to have one single standard of excellence.”

“This Inouye Amendment, as it was called, is just one I would say artificial seam that inhibits us from establishing that single standard,” the CNO continued.

HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee ranking member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said at the hearing that “Congress has contributed to these systemic readiness issues in the surface forces. Specifically, recent defense appropriations bills have carried language which restricts the Navy from realigning its man, train and equip functions under a single command. These congressionally mandated command and control restrictions have allowed an unusual situation to continue in the Pacific Fleet, which is responsible for both deploying forces and determining when those forces are ready to deploy, and to do so separate from the rest of the fleet. … This arrangement allows ships to be deployed without basic certifications and without meaningful plans to mitigate the risk to our sailors. While there is disagreement in the comprehensive review and the strategic review about the best actual command and control structure for Navy surface forces, it is clear that continued congressional limitation in this area is a hindrance to the management and readiness of the fleet.”

Seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) told USNI News he was committed to doing away with the Inouye Amendment to allow a single command to oversee man, train and equip policy, while a U.S. 3rd Fleet and U.S. 2nd Fleet structure would allow for the execution of preparing ready forces, and the remaining numbered fleets would be the consumers of those ready forces.

Despite general agreement from the Navy and lawmakers at the hearing about the need to do away with that separation of East Coast and West Coast decision-making, Hanabusa – who hails from Hawaii, the home of U.S. Pacific Fleet, just like the late Sen. Daniel Inouye who wrote the legislative language still in place today – expressed her concerns at the hearing.

“I don’t disagree with the standard of excellence, the single standard of excellence; however, I would like to press upon you that the Pacific is different. Where these accidents occurred, especially the McCain, is in a very busy area. … What we are faced with is a lot of commercial traffic,” she said.
“I believe the Pacific is different than the European theater, it is different, and the reason why I feel the senator probably put in what you call the Inouye Amendment is to ensure that the difference of that which is the Pacific would become formal in everyone’s mind.”

Even as lawmakers work out how to approach the legalities of realigning the Pacific Fleet and U.S. Fleet Forces, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said at the hearing that he’s moving ahead with simplifying the chain of command where possible under his current authority.

Spencer said he recently met with three- and four-star admirals to map out command and control lines, keeping in mind that “our goal should be that the commander of a ship should have a clear line to know what he or she is reporting to, and whom she or he is reporting to. We should also have a clear line of sight from command on down as to where responsibilities lie. When we look at the chart, we have not come to final conclusions yet but we’re in an iterative process which will have our first step forthcoming soon. We wanted to clean up exactly what you are talking about, which is the ability for us to act in the most efficient manner possible with the most direct lines of communication.”

Spencer added that, “in the case of the Pacific Fleet, we have an issue that I believe is going to be ameliorated [if] we do away with what used to be known as the Inouye Amendment.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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