SAN DIEGO — The surface Navy has had, by any objective standard, a difficult year. The collisions of the destroyers John S. McCain and Fitzgerald claimed the lives of 17 sailors, and the accidents produced a pair of damning reviews that called into question many of the decisions made by Big Navy.

But while the surface force has seen its share of tragedy and heartbreak, it has also chipped away at long-standing issues. It has moved to reorganize and fix its beleaguered littoral combat ship program. It also revamped the training for LCS sailors and made headway on its goal of putting more lethal weapons on more ships.

Defense News sat down with the Navy’s top surface warfare officer, Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, at his Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in San Diego, California, to discuss the past year and look ahead to 2018.

Where is the balance between one of the core missions, defending the aircraft carrier, and distributed lethality — presenting that diverse array of threats?

In the phases of the campaign, it’s not a one-size-fits-all. The enemy gets a vote, the enemy reacts, we maneuver, position our forces, then assess the situation and act according to the missions we need to accomplish. Obviously defending the high-value assets, whether it’s the logistics train, amphibious ready group or the aircraft carrier, doesn’t mean that ships can’t be used for other missions. And our ships, uniquely, are multimission assets. That means we can pull them in, defend the high-value assets, then put them in surface action groups and wreak havoc on the adversary.

Looking for more on the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet? Get the latest here.

You put the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System on the amphibious transport dock ship Anchorage. Can you discuss how that fits into your vision for moving the surface fleet forward?

I think certainly by putting HIMARS on the back of Anchorage and hitting a target ashore, I think that gives our adversaries pause. A ship that normally does not perform the strike mission was able to perform it and perform it very effectively from Anchorage. That gives us yet another tool in the distributed lethality tool box to be able to expand the scope of the missions we can assign to our ships.

What’s the status of maintenance in the shipyards? How are you doing in terms of creating realistic work packages and turning ships over in the yards?

Certainly there continue to be challenges in terms of capacity. We’ve got a lot of ships, they need a lot of maintenance and we’re dependent on the contractors to provide that maintenance. I would submit that the resource I’m most challenged by when it comes to maintenance is time. And we need to get the ships into the availabilities on time, out on time and do what they need to do. We’re really pushing the private yards to the limits with respect to getting that work done.

We’re working very closely with them, and while there certainly have been delays in the execution of maintenance, we’ll continue to work with them, work through the issues that we have and try to deliver those ships as rapidly as we can.

On the manning front, I understand there is a bit of a distributable inventory issue in terms of personnel. It’s been increasingly hard to fill billets getting into the optimized fleet response plan cycle.

There have been some decisions made in the past that are giving us some manning challenges. What I can tell you is that the ships going out the door are manned with the right number of sailors to do the right things that they have to do.

Are we getting them manned as early in the cycle as we would like to? No, but we are working our way through it. I think between the Bureau of Naval Personnel and the work the chief of naval personnel is doing to understand what needs to be done, I think the whole darn team is doing a pretty good job of getting the ships manned up.

The Perry-class frigates: Do you think they’d add value to the fleet, or would it be more of a burden to maintain an old ship?

I think it comes down to return on investments. If the ships can be cost-effectively brought back into the fleet and contribute to the mission, then it may be a direction that we want to go. I know that we are studying right now to find out what it would take. It does have a gun, it does have a flight deck that carries two very capable helicopters. Once the studies are done, that will determine where we want to go with those ships.

You’ve got a few LCS coming out of overhauls. What’s the outlook for next year and getting those ships into a regular operational tempo?

I’m really excited about ’18 and for littoral combat ships. We are getting the training and deploying ships delivered in numbers. We’re getting them through their post-shakedown availabilities. We’re standing up the divisions, the two East and West Coast [anti-surface warfare] divisions, and starting to get the crews aligned and processes in place in order to be able to start putting those ships out on deployment.

I think ’18 is going to be a great year for the surface force and a particularly good year for the littoral combat ships.

With a crew of merely 54 sailors, each sailor has to perform the job of five surface sailors in the regular fleet.

What’s going on with LCS right now?

We’re focused on understanding how to get crews trained on training ships, get them onto the ships, get the ships deployed and making sure we can materially support them. The best part is as we deploy these ships, getting them into the hands of the sailors in order to really wring out everything they are going to be able to deliver to the combatant commanders.

You’ve got Coronado coming back from deployment. How did that go, and from the perspective of being able to support that ship going forward, what are you looking to alter or improve in the future to make sure everything runs smoothly?

I think that deployment was fantastic and I think the crews did fantastic. It was the first deployment of the trimaran — learned a lot about what it could do, learned a lot about what we needed to do to support its operations forward.

Would I have liked to see a higher operational availability? Yes, I suppose I would. But for the times the ship was operating, it really performed very, very well for the 7th Fleet commander. So as I look back on the Coronado’s deployment and the performance of the crews and the performance of the ship, I think they did a superb job.

What is the status of the mission packages? When do you see those filtering out into the divisions?

I can tell you that the [surface warfare] package is performing as designed and I’m very pleased with where we are with that. We’re doing a bunch of testing with the anti-submarine warfare package, and that package is going to be a superb addition to the fleet.

We are all well-aware of the challenges on the mine-hunting/mine countermeasures side of the house, and I think it’s best to refer you back to the program on that one.

Moving onto the accidents, what was your reaction when you heard about the McCain collision?

Well, it was a gut blow when we found out that Sunday when the John S. McCain had collided. The focus was initially taking care of the ship, taking care of the sailors, taking care of the families — making sure we understand exactly what the situation was and exactly how the ship got into that position.

You’ve obviously read the comprehensive review. What are your thoughts?

Clearly tremendous value in the assignment [Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran] gave to [Fleet Forces Commander] Adm. Phil Davidson in the execution of the comprehensive review. Absolutely full support from the surface forces on the conclusions of the review, the 58 items that we are already attacking and will continue attacking.

The focus is, has and will be to understand that we need to take a holistic approach from the bottom up. And as we make adjustments in the way we generate readiness in our forces and in the way we consume readiness in our forces, we have to keep the center of the universe the center of the universe — and that’s the deck plates of these ships. They have to be integral to the development of corrective actions and the incorporation of those corrective actions so we are doing the best for them — the men and women on the ships.

What’s the message you have today for sailors living on these ships, sleeping below the waterline and making decisions every day about where they are putting their emphasis?

Clearly operational safety and the safety of our men and women on the ships is one of the highest priorities. Clearly taking ships to sea involves risk. Taking warships to sea involves risk. And it’s our responsibility to mitigate that risk to the maximum extent that we can. And my message to the fine sailors that are serving at sea today is: We’ve executed a review, we have some specific things we need to do in order to move forward and to continue to ensure their safety at sea.

We’re going to continue to take a holistic look; this isn’t a one-and-done. This is a cultural change that is occurring in our Navy and especially in our surface forces that is going to allow us to continually assess the risks to our men and women sailing into harm’s way, in peacetime or other, and ensure that we keep their safety, their best interests and their training, all those things that continue to allow us to be the best surface force on the face of the Earth, at the center.

Seems like you brought a lot of energy to distributed lethality and the idea of shaking things up and rethinking the way that surface warfare thinks about itself. In the time that you have left, how do you bring that energy to something as unsexy as the basics?

It’s not like we haven’t been continually working on the basics. Going back to the time I was back on the [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations] staff and working at getting the funding of the training right and getting the adjustments of the training right. And the unfortunate reality is that given the budgeting cycle and programming cycles, you can recognize things that need to occur in the adjustments of the training regime, and then you have to budget for them, execute the adjustments and then reap the benefits of that. We’re able to, with the comprehensive review, we’re able to shorten that cycle down. But since the 2012 time frame, we’ve been working to ensure we are singled up of the basics.

Just the incorporation of the Basic Division [Officer] Course that didn’t exist before; the building and expansion of the curriculum of the Basic Division [Officer] Course all focused on the fundamentals. And in the wake of the comprehensive review, we’re taking a good hard look at what we’re doing there, and what we’re doing at the Advanced Division [Officer] Course, and looking at what adjustments we need to make to not only build the basic fundamentals in our young men and women that are coming into the force ― enlisted and officer ― but also assessments, especially on the officer side of the house throughout their career. We need to make sure they stay current and proficient throughout their career at the execution of their responsibilities in taking ships to sea.

Were you surprised by anything? What were you surprised about when you started digging into these collisions and the comprehensive reviews?

I would submit that hindsight is always 20/20. Certainly in the time when the tragedies occurred and the output of the comprehensive review ― clearly when things like that happen, you don’t wait around to start having significant self-reflection on things you need to adjust. As we looked at post-Fitzgerald and post-McCain, the leadership in surface warfare and the staffs were able to start to look at what adjustments we need to make. I have to say that Adm. Davidson and his team did a superb job in the time they were allotted, and I think it gives us time to reflect on all the things they focused on ― all rock solid recommendations ― and then move beyond those, as well, and we look into the future.

Where do you want to leave surface warfare for your successor? What makes you proud to turn over this fleet?

I think its a well-trained and -maintained force. I think it’s on an upward glide slope, not only on the fundamentals of taking ships to sea but also on never losing an eye on war fighting. We’ve got to build that war-fighting capability and that war-fighting ethos into the young men and women, and if we continue to build those basics and continue to focus on war-fighting capabilities, we’ll continue to be able to deliver what we need to for the nation.

As you focus on war fighting, is it possible to lose focus on other areas and proficiencies?

Certainly it has to be a balance, absolutely has to be a balance. By virtue of the fact that you are taking a ship to sea, that is a training evolution. But I don’t think that is a substitute for dedicated training in the basic blocking and tackling of taking ships to sea, but also in the various mission areas we have to be able to be trained and proficient in.

Clearly there is a repetitive, day-to-day training mission that has to happen on our ships as we execute our day-to-day operations. When push comes to shove, when it comes time to execute the fight, you are going to rely on your training.

Anything else you want to cover?

I am exceedingly proud of the men and women of our Navy-Marine Corps team, but particularly the men and women of the surface force. The resiliency of the force, the strength of character, their dedication: I think our nation needs to be very proud of all the men and women serving the surface force.

Has there been a loss of confidence in the surface force among the American people in the wake of these accidents?

I certainly hope there hasn’t been a loss in confidence. Are there some things that we can do better? Yes, absolutely. But can we deliver for the nation? We could a year ago and we can today. And we’ll be able to do it a year from now. I think the reflection we’re doing from the comprehensive review and a lot other work we are working on is going to make us better, stronger and more proficient, and more capable to accomplish the mission.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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