The House Armed Services Committee debated how to balance ensuring that all forces throughout the Navy are equally ready for battle when they deploy versus ensuring the U.S. Pacific Fleet is nimble enough to respond to whatever military crisis or natural disaster may arise – with the majority of lawmakers ultimately deciding they wanted the Navy to enforce a single standard of readiness.
U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Fleet Forces Command today operate largely as separate entities, training and certifying the West Coast and East Coast fleets independently of one another and to potentially different standards.
Complicating the situation is the Forward Deployed Naval Forces Japan (FDNF-J) fleet, which permanently operates out of Yokosuka and Sasebo in Japan and has a totally different training, maintaining and operating schedule than the rest of the Navy – even compared to the U.S.-based ships in PACFLEET. With the Pacific theater requiring the Navy to provide presence missions to counter China and Russia, ballistic missile defense to counter North Korea, partnership building events spanning from Australia to India to Japan, and disaster relief in between, fleet leaders in the Pacific have adopted different force generation models to try to handle the great requests for forces – though some have accused that model of prioritizing operations over training and maintenance.
Last year, the Navy found after two fatal collisions last summer that unclear command and control, as well as the operations-focused force generation model, contributed to the environment that allowed two nonfatal surface ship mishaps and two fatal ones in the FDNF-J in a span of seven months.
The service has already taken two steps to emphasize readiness: first, it stood up the U.S. Pacific Fleet Detachment Naval Surface Group Western Pacific “to oversee the training and certification of surface ships forward deployed to Japan,” to counterbalance the emphasis on operations for the ships forward-deployed in the high-stakes region. And second, this month the Navy reestablished U.S. 2nd Fleet to “exercise training and operational authorities over assigned ships, aircraft, and landing forces in conducting maritime, joint and combined operations” from the East Coast, as a comparable organization to U.S. 3rd Fleet on the West Coast.
However, neither action answered the fundamental question that many grappled with: to achieve optimal readiness, should the Navy allow its U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Fleet Forces to operate separately, in effect creating an East Coast and a West Coast fleet with separate training and certification standards? Or should a single authority oversee the certification of all forces operating anywhere on the globe to ensure that all forces are trained and certified in the same manner?
The House Armed Services Committee in its text of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act chose the latter: it would “require the Secretary of the Navy to designate a single commander within the Department of the Navy responsible for ensuring Navy forces are available for tasking and deployment, including those Navy forces that may be operating from a forward deployed location.” Though the bill does not mandate that the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command be the single readiness generator, it “encourages” it.
Still, two of the HASC members hail from Hawaii, the home of U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Pacific Command, and argued during the markup that creating a single source of ready force generation would overlook the “uniqueness” of the Pacific area of operations.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) offered an amendment stating that ships could not be used for operational tasking until either “Commander of Surface Forces Atlantic submits to the Commander of the United States Fleet Forces Command, or the Commander of Surface Forces Pacific submits to the Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, as appropriate based on the region to which such vessel is proposed to be tasked, certification that such surface vessel is properly manned, trained, and equipped.” If the Fleet Forces or PACFLEET commander chose to override SURFLANT or SURFPAC recommendations and deploy the ship despite not being certified as ready, that commander would have to notify Congress.
Hanabusa claimed this was a good compromise – ensuring that the type commander had visibility into the surface ships’ readiness but also allowing regional experts to determine for themselves what it meant to be ready to operate in that area and balance training with operational needs.
“Both areas shall have a person who is knowledgeable in that particular area to make the designation that these surface forces are ready,” she said.
“It doesn’t allow, like it used to, that basically the PACFLEET commander could make this decision – it is the commander of the Surface Forces Atlantic or the commander of the Surface Forces Pacific. I believe this amendment is required and one that is cognizant of the fact that the Indo-Pacific Area, the problems that we’re having, including North Korea.”
However, there was strong pushback from others on the committee.
“Look at what happened in the Pacific: there was a breakdown at every level, whether it was command, whether it was decision-making,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee.
“There’s no reason to say we’re going to maintain two different navies. If we’re going to be serious about making sure we prevent these collisions, prevent these deaths, then we must say there should be one standard for our Navy, not two standards – why would you have a standard for the Atlantic fleet and a standard for the Pacific fleet? If things were working in the Pacific, we would not have had 17 sailors die. This is about those 17 sailors, folks, let’s not forget about that. Let’s make sure we do what’s necessary to change where we need to change. … We must make sure there’s a clear, comprehensive chain of command; clear, comprehensive decision-making that’s best for the Navy – not the Atlantic fleet, not the Pacific fleet, but for the United States Navy.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the second Hawaii congresswoman who previously expressed her concerns about the bill’s original language, said her main concern was preserving “the speed, agility, and ability for our PACOM to operate successfully within the region” and that “so far there has not been any explicit determinations that a single command to oversee man, train and equip policy would lend advantages to PACOM, increase our readiness or assist in achieving our national security objectives in the theater.”
Hanabusa later added that “unfortunately these tragedies did occur. But do we react to these tragedies by simply saying, okay, we’re going to put it in someone else’s decision making? No. We own up to the responsibility, and that is what we in the Pacific are doing. And we’re saying, we know the area best, now that we have the mandate as to how we determine readiness and availability to serve by this amendment, this amendment will take care of it.”
Still, after 23 minutes of debate, the amendment was voted down, 26 to 34.
The committee is now on record as supporting the single readiness generator model, with a preference towards Fleet Forces assuming that role. The Senate Armed Services Committee will mark up its own version of the NDAA the week of May 21, and if the senators reach a different conclusion about command and control of Pacific forces then the two committees would have to sort out the differences later on.