SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The head of the Navy’s surface force is pushing the fleet to be more ready for high-end combat, both in the skills of the crew and the material condition of the ships.
Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander of naval surface forces, wants a culture change that creates “combat-ready ships and battle-minded crews,” he told USNI News in a recent interview, and in many ways that means letting go of the reins and letting ship commanders push their crews to achieve excellence.
Over the last year and a half, SURFOR has made progress on the combat-ready ships piece.
“What does a combat-ready ship mean? That means ships deploy and leave no redundancy at the pier, that everything works on that ship the moment they deploy,” he said, noting that the Navy previously had sought cost-savings and efficiencies rather than preparing for an at-sea battle that could knock out a piece of equipment and require that all redundant systems be in good working order to kick in.
“When I took over, I put together some staff goals. … It was pretty simple: it said, we’re going to deploy our ships fully certified, fully manned at 92/95 (fit/fill) and CASREP-free.”
“My BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) out of that was the deploy CASREP-free, because we had not done that for decades,” he added, referring to the casualty reports that detail parts needed to repair faulty equipment.
“Quite honestly, in January of ‘18 we were deploying ships with 25 to 30 [category 2] CASREPS, completely unsat. But in April of this year, we deployed the Boxer [Amphibious Ready Group] CASREP-free, the entire ARG.”
Brown acknowledged that it costs more money this way, and it places more burden on the already-strained maintenance and logistics communities. But, he said, if the Navy is called to fight a high-end war, the ships must start out in good working order.
Before, he said, the mentality was: “hey, you have six fire pumps; if you have two down, am I going to spend the extra money to get that fire pump up before you deploy? The enterprise would say, well it’s not cost-effective to do that. Great. The combat-ready ship aspect says, when we go into the fight, there ain’t gonna be FedEx and DHL flying into theater, so why would you leave your redundancy at the pier?
“But it does come at a cost, because sometimes parts break and I can’t get the part to the ship through the supply system prior to the deployment, so I have to go and do a cannibalization, and then I pay that part back to the ship that I cannibalized,” he continued.
“So there’s two schools of thought on that. My thought is, I want a full-up system that’s forward, and then I’ll make sure the ship that’s back here gets that system full-up.”
Brown said he’s happy with the progress made on achieving combat-ready ships.
As for creating battle-minded crews, he said, more work is needed because he can’t just mandate a change; the sailors need to understand what could be at stake and change their perspectives.
Brown said he talks to crews every chance he gets and tells them “what war at sea is really like. It’s not antiseptic; it’s horrendous.” He referenced the World War II battle at Guadalcanal, where ships were hit and, amid whatever personnel casualties the ship took, sailors would still fight off Japanese aircraft despite not having radar or electrical power.
The three-star admiral said one of his first acts after taking over the surface force was to release a message on command: “in there I wrote a line that says, the way the U.S. Navy commands is what makes us so powerful, it really is. We have a unique concept of command, and because of that I implicitly trust my commanding officers, but also with that trust comes incredible and unyielding accountability and responsibility.”
With that in mind, he’s put it to his ship commanders to help instill a battle-focused mentality in their crews, and he’s been impressed with some of the results. Brown mentioned Cmdr. Robert McFarlin, the skipper of Japan-based destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65).
As the ship was coming back from its patrol and heading into a dry-docking maintenance availability, “we get an email from him, and he asks for three days of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). And we’re like, what? No! We’re not giving you three days of MREs, why do you want that? He goes, because we’re going to run a three-day battle problem and I’m going to shut down my galley. And we go, oh, okay, you can have them.”
“That’s what I want my COs to do. That was awesome,” he continued.
“They still talk about it. That crew put their ship into DSRA, they had the highest optempo of any DDG out in 7th Fleet, and I just went out there in June to see them and they were chomping at the bit to get that ship out of dry dock and go back on patrol. That’s exactly what we want.”
Basic Training Phase Overhaul
A related initiative to get at battle-minded crews is to let commanders find their own ways to get through basic training – while still meeting all the same requirements with the Afloat Training Group, but perhaps in less time, and perhaps while training to a higher level of warfighting.
Brown said the previous basic training phase was very proscriptive and focused on “compliance. If 70 percent is passing, I’m just going to go to 70 percent so I can get on to the next thing. So there’s no drive to excellence.”
Now, ship commanders have more control over how to get their crews through basic training and ready for a multi-day final battle problem.
Capt. Kurt Sellerberg, commanding officer of cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), told USNI News in a separate interview that he was able to get his crew through the basic phase about five or six weeks early – plus he found time throughout the basic phase for sailors to take care of personal readiness items such as medical and dental appointments, advanced qualifications and more.
By punching through his list of requirements for basic training faster than normal, Sellerberg was able to schedule several rehearsals ahead of the final battle problem, take part of his staff to Alaska to rehearse their air defense commander role with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, and create even more time for individual training.
“By coming up with a really good plan and scripting each week for all the events we wanted to do, we really started our basic phase in February and we were allocated until the middle of June to complete that – and essentially we were just about done with all but a couple of events by early May,” Sellerberg said.
“So when you talk about buying back time, it depends on your perspective – a junior sailor looks at buying back time as, hey, I get more time off. Some of the senior folks look at buying back time in terms of, okay, what else can I do to make myself more ready? And balance that quality of life perspective too, so people can take care of things like medical, dental, family, personal enhancements, schools, all those types of things. So we were able to manage a lot of that through getting people advanced qualifications, advanced NECs (Navy enlisted classifications), and that helped build readiness and bench depth.”
For example, he said that his crew had three or four times more time in the Navigation, Seamanship and Shiphandling Trainer (NSST) than normal, and his junior officers were able to get their qualifications faster than usual, thanks to the way the basic phase training was scheduled.
Asked how he was able to buy back so much time, Sellerberg said he broke the basic phase requirements into their individual piece parts. The training manual lumps 158 events into blocks that are only tackled one at a time – first administrative work, then mobility and damage control, then anti-terrorism and force protection, and finally into actual combat skills.
Instead, he began working with the Afloat Training Group (ATG) while Bunker Hill was still in maintenance to knock out administrative requirements and things like force protection and search and rescue that the crew could demonstrate while the ship was pierside.
Once the ship was out of maintenance, he prepared the crew to show off their best skills to ATG and see how many of the 158 events they could get certified in right off the bat.
“I want to show up for my first look with ATG, I want to be at the certifying level – recognizing that I probably wouldn’t be on a good 50 percent of those, but the 50 percent that I can knock out … allowed us to then focus on those more complicated ones where we needed work,” the captain said, saying that the arrangement let ATG focus on assessing first and then training only where needed.
“When you talk about buying back time too, it wasn’t that we were trying to do every thing every week; you’re trying to do very specific things. And then that buys back bandwidth, not just time, but bandwidth for leadership to focus on those areas,” he added.
“That was huge.”
For the events that the crew didn’t pass on that first try, Sellerberg created a more realistic at-sea experience that asked the crew to do engineering while also hunting for submarines, for example, rather than the traditional basic training program that dedicates a full week to engineering only.
“In the past, it was, you had something every single week, and whether you needed it or not, you were getting that block of training. Sometimes it would take four days or five days, sometimes it would take one or two. But you always had to plan for that five,” he said.
Damage control was one area where the Bunker Hill proved the old training model could be trimmed.
“We really accomplished all of our drills in a week, and normally you’re going to do them over two or three weeks. Engineering was another one, specifically where we had pretty focused effort with the watch teams and we were able to accomplish that about a week early,” he said.
“We were also able to do some of our live fire events – there’s a lot of gun shoots and other events that you do – we were able to knock those out earlier in the phase. We were out doing engineering one week, but we would also do a five-inch gun shoot. And normally, in the old model, you would have waited probably another five or six or eight weeks to even start those, so what this gave us was the flexibility to do multi-warfare, different warfare events,” Sellerberg continued.
“There’s 22 mission areas we’re supposed to get certified in. So I could do two or three different mission areas in a week, manage that at our level to what I thought was prudent. It maximizes our time underway – you can only do so many hours of engineering drills in the course of a day, so if I could take five hours and then go do something else, either as part of or in addition to, then I just bought back a whole week of focused effort. So I also think it gives me the opportunity from the operational side, when you look at conservation of fuel and resources to get underway, I’m really maximizing my time across 22 different mission areas.”
After knocking out so many event certifications in the first at-sea with ATG, and then working the remaining events in parallel to train and certify faster, Sellerberg had enough time at the end of the basic phase to put together a four-day, high-end final battle problem, along with several rehearsal runs for the crew to prepare them for whatever might be thrown at them in this last, ungraded test before the crew moves into the advanced training phase.
“The final battle problem was a pretty high-end, three-and-a-half day event where we got underway and we simulated basically what we would see in a deployed environment, and so that enabled us to really focus on that and prepare for it,” Sellerberg said, noting that he crammed about 40 of the 158 certifying events into this single at-sea period, creating a general quarters kind of environment where the crew was fighting a fire, defending the ship against incoming cruise missiles and launching offensive attacks.
During the practices and the final battle problem, Sellerberg said he threw in variables to keep the crew on their toes – in one case, he simulated the entire watch crew being taken out in an attack, requiring the rest of the ship’s crew to respond with medical treatment and damage control and forcing more junior sailors to step up and take the watch.
“That was kind of fun to see. Sometimes it was the least-expected people that stepped up, and in other cases it was, yeah I expected that person to step up and do that. So it was kind of like choose your own adventure type of thing, but Navy style,” the captain said.
“That allowed us to not really rehearse it, but get the crew ready for [the final battle problem].”
Vice Adm. Brown said there were “micro lessons learned” from Bunker Hill’s experience, as well as from amphibious ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) completing its basic phase training seven weeks early, and others who have gone through this revised approach to basic training. Those lessons will lead to an update of the Surface Force Training and Readiness Manual this fall, but the bulk of the onus to get through basic phase early will still fall on ship captains to put together a good plan with ATG and get their crews in the mindset of high-end warfighting excellence.
“There’s a pretty tried and true script of how to get a ship ready and train it,” Sellerberg said.
“But there’s also the element of the innovative approach of just doing things differently. I think that’s pretty helpful, and to have leadership that’s looking at that and supportive of that is a good thing.”