The three-star head of the surface Navy said the mix of high op tempo, manning cuts and a shrinking budget could make some sailors rethink Navy service. Here, sailors aboard amphibious dock landing ship Tortuga heave on a mooring line in Japan. (MC2 Gregory A. Harden II / Navy)
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The surface Navy’s three-star boss said he will assess whether his fleet is "hollow" — meaning its readiness has substantially deteriorated — based on whether ships are missing their scheduled deployment times.
Over the past two years, these five ships have left late for a cruise:
The aircraft carrier Nimitz and its escort, the cruiser Princeton, could not make their scheduled deployment date in January due to delays coming out of the yards. The Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group is returning to 5th Fleet in their place.
The cruiser San Jacinto will miss its deployment in February. It is still being repaired after a collision late last year that shattered its sonar dome.
The destroyer The Sullivans missed its deployment date in 2011. After mistakenly firing the deck gun at a fishing vessel during an exercise that August, the crew was forced to recertify and deployed six weeks later.
The mine countermeasures ship Patriot missed 7th Fleet patrols in spring 2011 because of fuel leaks and engine problems.
And one ship missed a major training exercise:
Amphibious assault ship Essex, loaded with Marines, missed an amphibious exercise off Australia in mid-2011 due to reduction gear problems.
Source: Staff research
Surface sailors have weathered deep crew and funding cuts, even as operations surged over the past decade. But with no signs that deployments will slow down, and with another round of budget cuts looming, some sailors are probably saying enough is enough — and that has the surface fleet boss worried.
"It never ceases to amaze me how the surface warfare officers and enlisted folks can rise up to any challenge," said Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces. "But there's a point at which we have to give them more resources to help them meet that challenge. We just can't do it. I mean, people will start walking. They'll do anything we ask them to do, but when it's their time to decide whether ‘I want to stay or go and do this again' … they're going to say, ‘Nope, not going to do it.'"
Copeman made this frank pronouncement last week in his keynote address to roughly 400 officers, chiefs and contractors at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium in Arlington, Va.
Officers at the event told Navy Times the candor was refreshing. These are concerns many leaders in the Navy share, but few have been so blunt in a public venue.
The surface force, which comprises the bulk of the Navy's fleet, has already begun to degrade because of cutbacks, a readiness drop-off that threatens to accelerate into a full tailspin as standards slip and sailors leave, said Copeman, who is six months on the job. Ships are struggling through basic training, gators are deploying on short turnarounds and sailors are being transferred "like crazy to get ships on deployment," he added.
"It's getting harder and harder for us to look the troops in the eye and say, ‘Hey, here's what you need to do to meet the standard,'" Copeman said in the question-and-answer session after his speech, typically billed as a state-of-the-surface Navy address. "It's getting harder and harder. Some ships can do it, some ships can't. And I think we're getting more ships that can't."
The surface fleet's fate is tied up in larger dilemmas, too. Tensions in Asia and across the Middle East are driving op tempo higher and deployments longer. The destroyer Paul Hamilton, for example, is in the middle of a 10-month cruise — among the longest in decades. Money to fix the fleet is up in the air as part of the latest budget impasse. And building the future fleet is now imperiled by rising costs and the nation's deficits.
Copeman's remarks, in total, were one of the most candid public assessments of the surface fleet's problems since then-Fleet Forces commander Adm. John Harvey testified about them to lawmakers in 2010. In that instance, Harvey told Congress that the surface fleet's readiness was one of the biggest issues in the force and one that would take two years to reverse.
Not every fleet boss's message is so dire, however.
In a speech the following day, Adm. Bill Gortney, an aviator who took charge of FFC four months ago, said the surface fleet was getting back on track and cited progress: Ship crews are getting more sailors back, new SWOs are better trained before they hit the fleet, millions are being invested in schoolhouses, the afloat training groups are expanding and maintenance programs have grown more robust.
"We're almost fully funding the availabilities," Gortney said. "We're going back into our tanks and voids again. And we've got the [Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning] Program," an effort by Naval Sea Systems Command to plan and fund the repairs needed to keep ships in service long term.
"Now, have we seen the results of this effort yet?" Gortney continued. "No, to be real honest."
Gortney labeled this progress "fragile" and said his job was providing the four-star support needed to keep it going. Gortney, who said he had given the handle "Sea Lord" to Copeman, dismissed a number of articles based on Copeman's speech, which had been featured that day in the Defense Department's Early Bird newsletter.
"Now I'm here to tell you, despite the Early Bird articles from the Sea Lord, I feel pretty good about where we're headed in the future with the surface Navy," Gortney said.
A near-hollow fleet
What's not up for debate is the fact that the Navy has been asking sailors to do more with less, in the face of a high op tempo, year after year.
Spare parts and sailors remain at a premium. They are resources swapped between ships to help them pass crucial inspections and exercises and to deploy fully capable.
And the fleet's readiness has been hamstrung by the swath of as many as 10,000 jobs open on subs, ships and squadrons.
These manpower gaps, compounded with the budget cuts, have raised the specter of a "hollow" fleet — a phrase used to describe a force whose readiness is substantially impaired and that dates to the military's decline after the Vietnam War.
Asked how he would know if the surface fleet has become hollow, Copeman replied: "I'll know it when I can't deploy ships. When a combatant commander says this ship's supposed to leave on deployment and it doesn't leave on time for whatever reason, then we know we've probably gotten there.
"And we got ships right now that aren't doing it," added Copeman, who said the surface Navy's fate may hinge on giving up some ships to keep the ones it has fully manned and equipped.
The fleet's progress is now threatened by the very real possibility that if Congress doesn't pass an annual budget, the Navy will be forced to cancel all ship availabilities in the second half of this fiscal year. If that happens, Copeman said ships will be deploying degraded the following year.
Despite these issues, the surface Navy has gotten serious about fixing the fleet in the past few years. The shore side has been boosted to help repair undermanned ships. Officials brought back 1,800 billets on existing ships in an effort to reverse the crew cutbacks from the "optimum manning" initiative. Aegis radar readiness has turned around due to better parts support and a renewed focus on fixing problems. And long-sidelined areas of the fleet, such as the minesweepers, have received more attention.
The fixes also extend to training. Sailors and officers are instructed more on how to properly maintain their equipment. The afloat training groups shifted from their role as inspectors to that of coaches, helping show junior crew members "what right looks like," as the saying goes. And the surface fleet has adopted a new readiness cycle. It requires a ship's systems to be ready before the ship begins the training cycle and also mandates that crews must pass criteria to advance from phase to phase of training, a system spearheaded by Harvey to ensure ships weren't slipping through workups ill-equipped and underprepared.
And in the latest move, the brass recently upped inspection requirements. All ships, subs and aircraft carriers will have to go through the fleet's toughest material exam, the Board of Inspection and Survey, twice as often and without the extensive assistance they've come to rely on. Officials say this will be a good thing and will lower stress on the force, but many sailors are skeptical and contend that it doesn't address the real issue.
In assessing how the fleet stacks up, INSURV is where the keel smacks the seas. This weeklong assessment is a make-or-break test for crews and captains and requires months of preparations before the gray-coverall-clad inspectors come aboard. Under the fleet's new plan, you're going to be seeing those gray coveralls a lot more.
Every ship and sub will undergo INSURV once every 2½ years, instead of the five years it had been. And ships will no longer get the extensive aid often needed in the last few years to make them look picture perfect. The point is to have a thorough material inspection in each deployment cycle to ensure that the crew is keeping their hull shipshape.
One of the inspections will be led by the type commander and is expected to be easier than INSURV. It will be half as long, with half as many assessors, and the results won't be reported to Congress, as they are with INSURV.
The aim is to get a more realistic view of a ship's readiness — not one padded by cross-decked sailors and gear.
"I understand that we don't have all the resources for ships to maintain those standards all the time," Copeman said. "But if we just do that once every five years and we throw a bunch of money at it in the quarter before and put a bunch of people on it and then the INSURV comes on it and says ‘Looking good,' and then all the parts walk off the ship with 100 people — I don't think we're doing the right thing for the health of the force."
One former commanding officer said this effort will help to confront one of the fleet's foremost threats: the downward slide of standards. More and longer deployments are wearing out equipment faster. And there's less money to repair it. That tends to create cultural issues.
"The problem is that people once again start accepting lower standards for things like material readiness simply because there's insufficient funding to fix everything that needs fixing," said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, who commanded the amphibious assault ship Essex and the destroyer O'Brien. "So whatever state a given thing is in — as long as it's still working — that becomes the new standard."
Most sailors are less enthused and are taking a wait-and-see approach since the new policy only went into effect Jan. 1. Some are skeptical that the new regimen will really be easier, while others feel it is unfair that their commands will be judged even though they don't have enough people.
"This effort is absolutely for nothing if the Navy does not immediately address the issue of manning," said one engineering inspector, who asked for anonymity to criticize fleet policy, in an email. The officer said that every ship he's assessed in past years had one or more undermanned ratings, often to critical levels, and called it an "overlooked" fact that ships are expected to deal with. "To continue to pile on assessments and inspections and expect a different result without addressing the root issue is idiotic."
One department head on an East Coast-based ship said sailors feel "there is a shell game going on."
"I do not think that cross-decks to support INSURV should be allowed. Instead, INSURV should grade the manning readiness of a ship. How far away is a ship from its BA or NMP?"
And a former ship CO noted that the fleet's material troubles have been well-documented and questioned why the fleet is going through this at all.
"We've known for a decade that the fleet was being pushed," the active-duty captain said in an email. "We have the metrics to show it. What have we done with those metrics, that data? Why should anyone think that collecting more data will lead to a change in behavior?"
Officials say the plan's aim goes beyond collecting data. It is intended to better train crews and boost ship's conditions while lowering stress on sailors. The two-star overseeing the change says the inspections will be more realistic and allow sailors to refocus on their most important goal: readying for deployment.
"What we're trying to do is actually de-escalate the gravity of the INSURV inspection," said Rear Adm. Robert Wray, INSURV's president, "and make it more a regular part of doing business where we would not have hundreds of sailors coming from other ships to help, where we would not spend years in preparation, where we would not invest millions of dollars."
The idea is to make INSURV a standard part of predeployment preps, much as the Composite Training Unit Exercise, or COMPTUEX, is a standard element of a carrier strike group's workups.
"It's a multiday event that you do prior to deployment," Wray explained in a Jan. 16 interview. "And everybody knows how to do them. And you prepare for them and they're important. But you don't spend a year working on it, and no one gives you a few extra million dollars to go through a COMPTUEX."
The revamped inspection has a host of changes. The new scoring system replaces the pass-fail in favor of a figure-of-merit total that represents the ship's overall performance. Transfers of personnel and equipment will be discouraged but not outlawed. Wray said he was considering adding a ship's manpower data to the report, but felt this wouldn't add much because the information is already known to the ship and its chain of command.
Under the old system, the percentage of INSURV deferrals had been a growing issue — one that prevented officials from assessing the fleet's real conditions. In 2010, inspectors completed 46 INSURVs, while 15 were deferred, a deferral rate of 33 percent, according to figures Wray provided. By 2012, the deferral rate had jumped to 66 percent, with 32 completed inspections, compared with 21 postponed.
Wray said the new system will address this by making it considerably harder for a ship to delay its inspection.
The new inspections could mean more ship deployment delays if there are significant failures. But the primary goal is to make this a realistic and fairly routine snapshot — not a wedding portrait that only captures the best possible moment.
Given all this, Wray said that he expects ships will not look as good under the new INSURV.
"I think that [equipment operational capability] and demonstration scores will probably drop off in the short term as we apply less resources to preparing for the inspection," Wray said. "And I think that that would be fine."
As the blackshoe Navy adopts this, the biggest question is whether they'll view it the same way.
The new INSURV's purpose, Copeman said, "is not to put anybody on edge or think they're going to lose their job. It's to train and educate the force more frequently."