WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is pressing toward a major organizational change that could strip U.S. Pacific Fleet of some or all of its manning, training and equipping functions and consolidate that power under U.S. Fleet Forces Command on the East Coast.
That move, along with other organization reshuffling, is the result of a pair of reviews that identified some unclear lines of command and control that stem from a long-held belief inside the service that the Pacific Fleet is in a unique theater that should have both the force generation and force employment accounts in their grip.
But the idea of removing authorities from Pacific Fleet, as well as some other reshuffling under consideration, has been controversial, with the four-star head of the Pacific Fleet publicly nay-saying the idea Tuesday. But it’s unclear if, in the wake of widespread readiness shortfalls found in Pacific Fleet’s Japan-based ships, those objections will hold much weight with senior Navy leadership.
In a recent interview, the Navy’s second-in-command said the reorganizations first put forward in the dual reviews the Navy conducted into last summer’s accidents was being worked by a newly established Readiness Reform and Oversight Council, a board co-chaired by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations along with the Undersecretary of the Navy.
“One of the working groups led by [the deputy CNO for Operations, Plans and Strategy], collaborating with the fleet and the office of legislative affairs and others, is going to really look hard at this force generation versus employment,” Adm. Bill Moran said. “And the model that exists today is that both coasts are doing a force generation piece and a force employment piece. And then you have FDNF that’s bolted on to that construct.
“So we’re looking really hard at that,” Moran added. “The Secretary [of the Navy] and [Chief of Naval Operations] have a particular interest in this.”
The other major move being considered is taking the three-star type commander job – Naval Surface Force Pacific and Naval Air Force Pacific – from the West Coast and putting it in Norfolk to be closer to a more empowered Fleet Forces commander, a possibility recommended in the reviews.
Prior to the last major reshuffle in 2001, both coasts had a three-star type commander who oversaw modernization, training and operational concepts development for their ships. But after the reorg, the Navy went to a lead/follow model, where SURFPAC and AIRPAC were the three-star type commanders, and their East Coast counterparts were two-star admirals who follow their lead. (The submarine type commander stayed on the East Coast.)
The secretary of the Navy’s Strategic Readiness Review recommended that all the leads be relocated to Norfolk and the follows be kept in the Pacific, a move designed to keep a newly empowered Fleet Forces close to the TYCOMs. The argument being that the confusing and opaque relationship between the type commanders and their East and West Coast readiness providers — PACFLT and Fleet Forces — obfuscates clear lines of authority.
“Getting the clarity on command and control is very important and I do think over time it got less clear,” Moran said. “Back in the day when we had three-star TYCOMs on both coasts, it was a little more clear. Then we got to the lead/follow and it got a little less clear, even though we tried to make it clear.
“So I think that’s something that this working group is going to have to look at … Is there the potential for other clarifications? I think it’s likely and we’ll let the working group make those recommendations and take it up to the CNO.”
The reviews also recommended reestablishing the defunct 2nd Fleet as the readiness provider on the East Coast, the way 3rd Fleet is on the West Coast. That recommendation is likely to be adopted, several sources said, but the same sources cast doubt on whether the South-and-Central America focused U.S. 4th Fleet would be disbanded, per the recommendation.
The idea of stripping the West Coast of its three-star TYCOMs and its force generation responsibilities has not been universally praised. Advocates for the move say that getting readiness functions out of the hands of Pacific Fleet will free the four-star commander to focus on the unique strategic and operational challenges in the region.
But in a recent interview with USNI News, Pacific Fleet head Adm. Scott Swift argued that the construct of Pacific Fleet generates readiness well and rejected the idea that having separate centers of force generation creates multiple standards.
“We do not have multiple standards,” Swift said. We train the fleet to the same standard. The last five carrier strike groups that deployed, we built that readiness. PACFLEET did, they all deployed off the West Coast. And they’re performing magnificently in Syria, Iraq, all those other places. So there’s not a double standard.”
Swift acknowledged the shortfalls in readiness generation in 7th Fleet, well documented in both reviews, but seemed to tell USNI that his 3rd Fleet Forward initiative — where groups deploy under the control of third fleet the whole time instead of changing to 7th Fleet when in the Asia-Pacific region — has begun to ease the burden on 7th Fleet.
Supporters of reorganization say that nobody is questioning Pacific Fleet’s ability to generate readiness, but that being a readiness generator as well as a force employer creates a fox-guarding-henhouse scenario where the need for forces can cause, even unwittingly, pressures to cut corners as was documented in 7th Fleet.
“The issue is you are under the gun to provide forces and that will shade into: ‘What do we have to do to get those forces out faster,’” said one retired senior Navy leader. “This is what happened in Yokosuka.
“So let’s look out in the next five years: what’s going to change? Demand for ships? No. Are we going to get more ships? No. So the pressures are only going to grow – I don’t see the pressure to do everything is lessening and inevitably you are going to find a way to provide those forces.”
Retired Adm. Bob Natter, who was the last 2nd Fleet commander and was the first Fleet Forces Commander in 2001, said he agreed Moran’s statements about the potential for major reorganization.
“I certainly support and agree with the vice chief’s comments,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate and timely to make the adjustments’ where necessary.
“Its a different world today than it was when we made the changes and none of this stuff should be etched in stone.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.