Exhausted Navy Fleet Faces A Dilemma: How To Hit ‘Reset’ While Staying On Watch

Opinion

7th Fleet, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific forward deployed naval force, has burned itself out; the cost of this burnout is poor readiness, loss of ships and equipment, and most importantly, sailors’ lives. Since January, four significant ship mishaps have occurred in the 7th’s area of responsibility (AOR), including fatal collisions with merchant ships for the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. Those two incidents killed 17 sailors — significantly more than the number of U.S. service numbers lost in the Afghanistan war zone so far in 2017. This summer has been a watershed moment for the 7th Fleet family.


“I had made the assumption for many, many years that our forward deployed forces in Japan were the most proficient, well-trained, most experienced force we have because they were operating all the time,” Adm. Bill Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, said in a September 7 joint hearing before members of two House Armed Services subcommittees.

“It was the wrong assumption,” he added.

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The 7th Fleet, homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, has an area of operation that spans more than 124 million square kilometers, stretching from the International Date Line to the India/Pakistan border. Having a continuous forward presence in the Pacific is a key deterrent to would-be aggressors such as North Korea and China.

Related: Amid 7th Fleet Turmoil, Sailors Open Up About The Navy’s Silent Threat: Sleep Deprivation »

15 years ago, when I spent three years of my naval career forward deployed to Japan, you could count on a couple of things to be true. First, 7th Fleet assets were always fully funded — and when you were forward deployed, you were blissfully removed from a lot of bureaucracy. But constant operations meant those resources became part of a “make it happen” mindset. You never really got to have a break and take advantage of all the training resources back in CONUS. This led to what senior guys would describe as a “shoot from the hip” mentality. It was like having a thoroughbred racehorse, but with no time to practice riding—you just went when the bell sounded.

Since then, stability has declined in the Pacific AOR — and in the Department of Defense budget. Now, we see an unrelenting demand for naval presence with the potential nuclear proliferation of North Korea. China is actively building artificial islands in the South China Sea, widening their territorial claims in an area rich with natural resources. To complicate matters, the Navy’s current fleet size is estimated to be 36 ships fewer than the service’s current operational plans require, according to the Heritage Foundation. A smaller complement of warships, coupled with an inability to actively train and perform preventive maintenance due to constant budget gaps, has worn the 7th Fleet down.  

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Many critics point to the 2011 Budget Control Act, which mandates the cost-chopping process known as “sequestration,”  along with nine consecutive continuing resolutions as a death knell for U.S. force readiness. A continuing resolution (CR) provides stop gap funding for operations, personnel, and equipment but at the same levels as the previous fiscal year. It is a measure used when Congress and the President cannot agree--or when Congress takes too long-- to provide a budget appropriation for the next fiscal year. The key downsides of a CR are no new programs can begin and no final decision has been made on the next year’s budget.    

Funding reductions and consistent uncertainty over Congressional budget approvals don’t mix well with the already-high operational tempo of the 7th Fleet model. Due to Congress’ ineptitude and lack of timely appropriation funding, Navy leaders can’t accurately plan a budget to cover the combatant commanders’ increased demand.

Without a funding increase — which seems likelier this year — training in even the most basic of tasks has become difficult. John Pendleton, the Government Accountability Office’s director of defense readiness issues, told the House Armed Services readiness panel that 8 of the Japan-based U.S. fleet’s 11 ships had expired certifications for seamanship.

“This represents more than a fivefold increase in the percentage of expired warfare certifications for these ships since our May 2015 report,” Pendleton said.

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Think about that for a moment. Over 70% of the 7th Fleet was not certified to even properly drive the ship—a basic requirement to operate any vessel safely and effectively. Surface warfare officers will tell you driving a $1.6 billion dollar ship through extremely crowded navigation lanes is pretty difficult. Safe and effective operation takes regular training; it’s not like riding a bicycle. Most importantly, if a ship is not even certified in seamanship, how can one expect it to fight when it does eventually get to the required AOR?

The Navy has tasked Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, to perform a comprehensive review on how these recent incidents at sea have occurred and what can be done to mitigate them. Davidson’s team must address 7th Fleet’s operational tempo, as well as the conflict between operating and available maintenance time. The review team must also assume that Pentagon-funding gaps will continue in Congress, but correcting this problem will take more than money now. The review plan must come with built-in “reset” time, to provide opportunities for maintenance and to achieve basic crew qualifications and certifications.

This reset time will come at a price. Navy leadership must turn down missions in the near term and slow the 7th Fleet operational tempo until its sailors can get back on track. But we must remember that a larger problem with North Korea and China looms on the horizon. It is obvious 7th Fleet cannot continue as things are, or we could risk losing our deterrence option all together. If we want to maintain a formidable presence in the region, a comprehensive reset looks like the only option.

U.S. Navy

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Bellavia survived the intense enemy fire and went on to single-handedly kill five insurgents as he cleared a three-story house in Fallujah during the iconic battle for the city. For his bravery that day, President Trump will present Bellavia with the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, making him the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the award.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, Bellavia recalled that the house where he fought insurgents was dark and filled with putrid water that flowed from broken pipes. The battle itself was an assault on his senses: The stench from the water, the darkness inside the home, and the sounds of footsteps that seemed to envelope him.

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(U.S. Army/Pvt. Stephen Peters)

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After many weeks of fighting there and at Mindanao, he was finally captured by the Japanese and spent the next several years languishing under brutal conditions in Filipino and Japanese World War II POW camps.

Now, having just turned 100 years old, the Antioch resident has been recognized for his 42-month ordeal as a prisoner of war, thanks to the efforts of his friends at the Brentwood VFW Post #10789 and Congressman Jerry McNerney.

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(U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Andrew Ochoa)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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They'll spend weeks weaving through underground tunnels and simulating fires in a mock packed downtown city center. They'll also face off against their peers, who will be equipped with off-the-shelf drones and other gadgets the enemy is now easily able to bring to the fight.

It's the start of a four-year effort, known as Project Metropolis, that leaders say will transform the way Marines train for urban battles. The effort is being led by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico, Virginia. It comes after service leaders identified a troubling problem following nearly two decades of war in the Middle East: adversaries have been studying their tactics and weaknesses, and now they know how to exploit them.

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(Reuters/Carlos Barria)

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Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called "the hostile conduct of the regime."

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