WASHINGTON — In 2009, the U.S. Navy faced a readiness crisis.
The cruiser Chosin and destroyer Stout were both deemed unfit for combat operations by the service’s Board of Inspection and Survey, which at the time checked ships’ material conditions every five years.
And they weren’t the only ones. From 2005 through 2009, nearly 14% of surface ships failed their inspections, up dramatically from 6.2% from 2000 to 2004 and 3.5% from 1995 to 1999.
The crisis came after the Navy discontinued several of its Cold War-era organizations focused on maintenance and training in an effort to save money during a time without a significant threat to U.S. security.
But the failures of Chosin and Stout drew new attention to the problem. Adm. John Harvey, who led U.S. Fleet Forces Command at the time, helped charter a fleet review panel to determine how the Navy ended up in this position.
The review, released in 2010, was condemnatory. “The panel is in full agreement that surface force material readiness is in decline. [T]he message is clear: the trend is in the wrong direction.”
Chief among the review’s recommendations was a call for the return of readiness squadrons, which oversaw surface ship maintenance and basic training. The review found that when these squadrons were eliminated in 1995, so too was the fleet’s focus on and accountability for making deployable ships and crews.
In 2010, Harvey pushed to reinstall the readiness squadrons, but he couldn’t rally enough support from the Navy’s manning, engineering and budgeting leaders, among others. The recommendation was never implemented.
But in summer 2017, two separate collisions by Navy ships in the Western Pacific killed 17 sailors. The service once again had to dig out of a ship readiness hole, and a key leader again called for the return of the readiness squadrons. Again, the idea went nowhere.
Now, though — as ship maintenance metrics improve from a recent low, but remain inadequate, according to naval officials — the sea service is poised to establish “surface groups” meant to renew the Navy’s focus on maintenance and training.
Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener has tasked a working group to identify the necessary billets and the appropriate command-and-control structure for these surface groups, with the aim of kicking off a pilot program in San Diego, California, this summer.
The effort could bring to each ship home port dozens of additional sailors who would solely focus on ensuring the ships there receive the best and most efficient maintenance and training.
Kitchener said there are two key differences this time around: an advanced adversary in China that’s forcing the Navy to think about its near-term readiness to fight; and data analytics and modeling that prove the surface groups will be worth the investment.
The three-star officer said ongoing, data-based work generated ways to improve maintenance performance, but the service still needs an organization focused every day on ensuring those ideas are executed and rigorously adhered to.
Kitchener said he consulted with Navy technical authorities, fleet commanders and the chief of naval operations, and that these three- and four-star leaders support the initiative “because of the focus on the Western Pacific and what we need to do to … generate enough forces to meet the requirements for that threat.”
A surface group for every home port
Data is central to Kitchener’s new effort. He told Defense News in an interview that various efforts have identified the ways to improve ship maintenance: building up a larger inventory of select spare parts, adding capacity in key shops and departments that are potential chokepoints, increasing training and growing expertise in certain technical areas, and more.
But the challenge is in the execution, and that’s why he’s so interested in the surface groups.
Take Destroyer Squadron 9, for example, located in Everett, Washington. Its ships are scattered geographically: one located in Everett, five in San Diego and two in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
They also move through the readiness and deployment cycle on different schedules; the squadron staff and five of the ships deployed in December with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, but the other three remain at home port for maintenance or training without the captain-level supervision and assistance they may need to reach peak readiness.
Kitchener used this squadron as an example of how he’d like the surface groups to function. As the squadron was in final training and certification for the recent deployment, one of the ships experienced a maintenance problem. Rather than bog down the staff of Destroyer Squadron 9, which has a limited readiness and logistics shop and was focused on upcoming operations in the Western Pacific, the ship instead went to Pearl Harbor at the end of predeployment training for a ship repair period completely conducted under the control of Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific.
Once the repair was complete, the ship was turned back over to Destroyer Squadron 9 for the deployment — an arrangement Kitchener said let the technical and tactical experts each focus on their own work in parallel, without distraction.
Kitchener said he’s awaiting the final recommendations of his working group this summer, but expects each fleet concentration area to have a single surface group responsible for maintaining and training all surface ships, including cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and amphibious warships, based in those cities. These home ports include San Diego; Norfolk, Virginia; Mayport, Florida; Everett; Pearl Harbor; Yokosuka, Japan; Manama, Bahrain; and Rota, Spain.
Each surface group would be led by what’s known as a post-major command captain — a senior O-6 officer who has already led a destroyer or amphibious squadron, or captained a cruiser or large-deck amphibious assault ship. That individual would report directly to either the commander of Naval Surface Force Pacific or the commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic.
Each surface group would devote itself entirely to readiness. They would be most active in helping ships during the maintenance and basic training phases of the 36-month Optimized Fleet Response Plan, but they’d also play a supporting function for ships on deployment. For example, in the case of a maintenance casualty, the surface group back home would work to find the quickest solution, allowing the destroyer or amphibious squadron staff to continue focusing on operations.
“This is oversight and responsibility and accountability throughout the entire” readiness cycle, Kitchener said. “The idea is, this exists in the fleet concentration area, it’s got a cadre of people that are constantly on our ships assessing, understanding what the problems are; we’re pulling the trend analysis here at the headquarters, giving them focus areas. It’s a very active, not just some sort of bureaucratic, organization.”
Though the exact command and control isn’t finalized — and will almost certainly look a bit different than the Cold War-era readiness squadrons and tactical destroyer squadrons — Kitchener said he’s committed to ensuring “we’re not going to turn over a ship from force generation to force employment until it’s ready.”
How surface groups can boost readiness
The Navy has observed improvements in maintenance performance, but is also facing new setbacks as labor and supply chain challenges across the manufacturing sector continue to take a toll on the ship repair industry.
Rear Adm. Bill Greene, the fleet maintenance officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said in the fall that only 36% of surface ships are expected to complete maintenance availabilities on time in fiscal 2022, down from 44% in fiscal 2021.
But, he added, the cumulative delay days across all maintenance work has gone down for several years in a row. So, more ships are missing their expected completion dates, but they’re coming out “less late,” he said.
This duality is also reflected in the most recent Board of Inspection and Survey report, which noted surface ships are seeing higher overall readiness scores than the six-year average, but have more functional areas deemed “degraded” than the six-year average, using a scoring method of satisfactory, degraded or unsatisfactory.
What vexes the Navy, Kitchener said, is variance in maintenance performance: Some ships come out of availabilities on time and with no major problems, while others get bogged down with repeated delays. Kitchener and his staff, as well as Naval Sea Systems Command on the engineering side, said they are limited in their ability to identify early signs of poor performance, and thus intervene.
Kitchener outlined a three-step process to address this. The first step was already done under Performance to Plan, an effort led by the vice chief of naval operations meant to identify areas of poor performance and use data to identify the actions that will most improve that performance. In the area of ship maintenance, for example, P2P has highlighted the need to prioritize people or materials for a certain ship availability, and then coordinate activities across multiple shops at a shipyard to get a specific repair done on time.
The second step is allowing surface groups to devote their full attention to implementing the actions identified through P2P in hopes of achieving better on-time maintenance rates.
The third step, on which Kitchener said he’d offer more details soon, is creating a surface response plan that prioritizes certain ships’ readiness over others.
If a contingency arose and a combatant commander needed three destroyers, the three ships at the top of the list would be called upon to deploy on short notice. Those ships higher up on the list would be expected to stay in a peak-readiness state, and the maintenance and supply communities would act accordingly. Ships lower on the list and less likely to be called upon for unexpected tasking may be in a lower readiness condition if the fleet is short on personnel or materials, for example.
The surface groups are central to this plan. Each fleet concentration area already has an organization that oversees crewing, training and equipping issues in their respective port. But compared to the Cold War readiness squadrons, Kitchener said these units are reduced in their size, scope and authority.
These organizations will be renamed and given larger staffs so they can usher surface ships through maintenance and training, share their technical expertise with ship crews, and mentor ship commanders.
Kitchener said the future SURFGRU Southeast, currently named Naval Surface Squadron 14, is the “most robust” organization and has served as a model for the working group, which determined how many supply specialists, logistics personnel, diesel engine (versus gas turbine) experts, and so on, were needed to keep ships properly ready.
Kitchener said the Mayport group has 105 billets for a squadron that tends to about 10 destroyers — compared to just 10 personnel tending to nine destroyers and cruisers in Everett. The exact number of billets in each group would depend on the number of ships at a particular port, but Kitchener said the groups would more closely resemble the Mayport squadron than the Everett unit.
Kitchener declined to say exactly how many new billets he’ll request, but did note the working group had mostly finalized its recommendation. Some of the billets will come from elsewhere — the SURFGRU Southwest organization in San Diego will likely be staffed at first by some of Kitchener’s data team — and some will be new billets. The admiral said the Navy can, without Pentagon or congressional help, set up these squadrons and begin to staff them using existing resources.
Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesman for Kitchener, told Defense News that Naval Surface Forces is still developing an early cost estimate for this change, but that the Navy would use existing resources and billets to the greatest extent possible while setting up these more robust surface groups.
In 2010, the fleet review panel’s report, dubbed the Balisle Report after lead author retired Vice Adm. Phil Balisle, shocked the surface fleet with its data on the poor state of ship readiness and crew training. It painted a dire picture of a surface navy that needed to be fixed; otherwise, there was a risk someone could get hurt or killed.
“The Balisle Report gave us this tremendous look at a history, really since 2000 or so, of these various decisions that were made in various different parts of the Navy,” Harvey told Defense News. “The collective impact was very, very negative in terms of our ability to keep our ships properly manned, trained and equipped.”
Harvey, the retired admiral who led U.S. Fleet Forces Command from July 2009 to November 2012, took the first crack at implementing the recommendations.
“Bringing back the readiness squadrons,” Harvey said, “if you talked to Adm. Balisle, it was his No. 1 recommendation to do. And I agreed with that.”
Still, Harvey added, the urgency to make this major change was “overcome by other events at that time.”
The Navy was skipping training and maintenance to achieve unsustainable levels of at-sea presence, and it was down about 12,000 sailors thanks to the individual augmentee program that sent personnel to support joint operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sequestration cuts to the federal budget in 2012 further diminished readiness, Harvey explained.
“It was going to take more billets, more people. … And there just was not a clean, widespread agreement among everybody who had to agree that this was the right way to go,” Harvey said. “In the greater scheme of things and what was going on, it just never rose to the level where it had a critical mass of leadership who all said: ‘Yes.’ ”
Retired Vice Adm. Rich Brown, who investigated one of the two fatal ship collisions in 2017 and then took command of Naval Surface Forces in 2018, resurrected the push to bring back readiness squadrons. He said that, by 2017, virtually all Balisle’s recommendations were implemented — with the readiness squadrons being the major exception.
Brown told Defense News a robust readiness squadron likely would have prevented the fatal collisions involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain.
The existing structure asks destroyer squadrons to oversee the maintenance and certification of ships and serve as the sea combat commander for a carrier strike group. If the squadron needs a ship to fulfill a warfighting requirement, it creates a conflict of interest that can put maintenance and training needs at risk.
Brown said this construct “failed, and we recognized that it was failing, and so that’s why the Balisle Report said, and later I said, we’ve got to do this. And we just didn’t do it.”
He called the 1980s readiness squadrons “a proven model” that restored the Navy from having a hollow fleet in the 1970s to having a robust surface force by the 1980s.
Brown said the model will work today as long as the Navy settles on a clear command-and-control structure and pays for the necessary billets for Kitchener’s beefed-up surface groups.
A future “high-end fight requires so much dedicated concentration and focus that we need these additional commands. They’re going to come at a cost — it’s going to come at a huge manpower cost, and the Navy’s got to buy that manpower because it’s the right thing to do for our carrier strike groups,” Brown said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.