THE PENTAGON — Senior leaders in the Navy still have more questions than answers as they move to methodically and deliberately alter the way the surface forces do business in what could be a years-long process of evaluations and reforms.
Last week, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran and Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly chaired the first meeting of the Department of the Navy’s Readiness Reform Oversight Council that will begin debating, crafting and implementing the recommendations that came out of two reviews undertaken after last year’s string of fatal collisions that killed 17 sailors and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
After months of evaluations, the service is still working to understand what conditions in the fleet contributed to the collisions, Modly said.
“The fundamental problem is that we had two very tragic incidents that should never happen. What we’re trying to understand is that when you do any type of accident investigation or any type of analysis like that you find lots of different things that could be root causes for this,” Modly told reporters last week.
“What we’re trying to understand is which of those things were the biggest contributing factors and which of those things can we address as an enterprise — not just to fix that particular problem, but how does that affect the future force.”
Early grist for the process will be the findings of the U.S. Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Phil Davidson-led Comprehensive Review and Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer-directed Strategic Readiness Review that put forth recommendations to arrest the decades-long decline of surface force readiness domestically and in the Forward Deployed Naval Forces in Japan and Europe.
“We believe the CR and the SRR are both very good reviews. They tackle and look at things from different perspectives. The CR is very focused in on the tactical issues associated with training, manning, equipping, but they also address the larger structural contributing factors from OPTEMPO to having the right mix of capabilities in FDNF,” Moran said.
“SRR took a more broad view from the strategic level. They took a look at command and control functions and then they looked at [legislative] and policy changes to be able to make adjustments in career paths and so on and so forth.”
While the two studies provide the framework for the council’s effort, the scope of the work could morph as the working groups – command and control, operations, manning, training, budgetary, governance and culture – tweak what ultimately will be adopted by the service.
Front and center for the surface forces are the increased pressure from the steady growth of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), more aggressive Russian Navy actions and ballistic missile threats from North Korea.
“The challenges are so different now than they were 15 or 20 years ago, and we have to be thinking about that as we develop recommendations here, and hopefully the ramifications of [review effort] have broader implications for the entire naval service,” Modly said.
“It’s not like we’re at a steady state here and we can focus all of our energy on this effort. We have an increasingly complex geopolitical environment that makes it extremely competitive and becoming more competitive in the maritime domain.”
Easy wins have already been adopted to improve safety for ships operating overseas, like activating automatic identification systems in busy shipping channels so merchant ships can see warships and adopting better-defined sleep schedules for crews underway.
The trick for the council is to craft changes that emphasize warfighting and do not overburden commanders and crews with more tasks than they can handle, Moran and Modly said.
“To me, at some point in the future, the sooner the better, is we’ve got COs that are training crews to be ready for combat, not checking blocks for certs and quals,” Moran said.
“There are ships out there today that are doing this really well, so we need to take the best of what we have and apply them across the whole force – and that’s leadership and that’s culture. What tools do they need to be empowered in order to do that?”
Much of the work will be coordinated through the new commander Naval Surface Forces, Vice Adm. Richard A. Brown.
“We’ve been very clear to Adm. Brown that our job is to remove barriers from him, to allow him to get his job down focusing on the surface force. Anything from career management, readiness, training – training being the real focal point here, manning, those things,” Moran said.
“We’re trying to push decision-making down. Ideally, these folks can get after it if it makes perfect sense and it’s an obvious ‘yes, let’s go do this…’ It’s really the sequencing and the prioritization of working with the SWO Boss in this case.”
The roles and responsibilities of the guided-missile destroyers and cruisers that make the bulk of the surface force have expanded over the last 15 years as the ships take on more and more missions. In 2013, a destroyer based in Japan had about 13 missions in which the ship and crew needed to be certified. Now it’s more than 20.
“We’re certainly asking the working group to look at all the tasks, to look at the workload that is on the ships and see if there are tasks and missions that we could pull back on. The feedback that I’ve gotten back from some in the fleet is that there are some tasks they think there’s more time invested in trying to train and certify the crew for than they actually ever do,” Moran said.
“It shows you how complex the environment has become and how complex these machines can be, but we have to resource them appropriately, and this is that incredibly valuable component of time that gets shrunk around a crew – the time to train, the time to maintain, the time to operate. We’re asking a lot of our crews, and this will rip that apart, and we’ll rip it apart and along with the SWO Boss we’ll put it back together.”
The oversight council will meet monthly for the foreseeable future.