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Navy’s massive training overhaul faces long-term threat

Buried inside the Navy’s recent strategic review was an ominous warning: The Navy’s plans to transform the way sailors are trained is at risk of failure because the Pentagon is already forcing budget cuts on the ambitious multi-year effort.

The current path of the program, known as “Ready Relevant Learning,” calls for an ambitious tech-based modernization that will create a continuum of learning throughout a sailor’s career.

The fundamental change cuts back on post-boot camp “A schools” and promises to train sailors throughout their career.

The overhaul is widely considered to be a cornerstone of the effort to boost enlisted sailor expertise in the fleet after the two fatal collisions that killed 17 sailors last summer were blamed on poor seamanship.

But the strategic review released by the Navy Secretary’s office in December raised pointed questions about the “RRL” training regimen that is now in its second year.

The review, widely lauded as a thorough and painfully honest assessment of the Navy’s many woes, said the Navy is failing to properly fund the effort, and it drew specific comparisons to the Navy’s previous training reform launched in 2001 — one that ended in failure.

“The Navy removed $70M from Ready Relevant Learning’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget in a re-phasing that will slow the program,” the review said, though it didn’t quantify how significantly the cut would delay the program.

The change slashes the current $222 million budget by more than 30 percent, according to Fleet Forces Command.

The Navy has already begun to cut instructor billets based on the assumption of future manpower savings coming from training technologies the service doesn’t yet have on hand, according to the review.

The review said the RRL effort could see further significant funding slashes in the coming years — putting it at risk of failure. “The Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress recently proposed additional cuts to the initiative totaling approximately $400M over six years,” the review states.

For those who have been around the Navy for some time, this is familiar.

It’s the same fate that was dealt to the Navy’s last training initiative, known as the “Revolution in Training.” And the review noted that failure as a major contributing factor to the Navy’s training shortfalls.

Now the service is at risk of repeating history, the review said, which goes on to note that the Navy is somewhat incapable of learning from its mistakes.

Multiple officials familiar with the strategic review say at least part of that criticism was leveled due to the Navy’s handling of the current training overhaul.

Navy officials said the funding changes should not be characterized as a budget cut, but rather a “rephasing” of money.

Right now, the program is not at risk, and the changes to the budget make sense in terms of long-term planning, in that they will “allow time for stakeholders to execute the Ready, Relevant, Learning program that is fully aligned with industry capacity and Navy activities,” said Lt. Jamie Seibel, a spokesperson for Fleet Forces Command, which oversees the program.

Unlike past training efforts, the FFC controls the program. Naval Education and Training Command and the chief of naval personnel play only a supporting role.

But, Seibel added, the specter of more reductions to future years’ budgets will put the program at risk.

“Continued cuts will slow the process of modernizing the Navy rating courses,” Seibel said. “We will continue to communicate with [the Secretary of Defense] about budget requirements and concerns in order to minimize impacts wherever possible.”

Continued cuts could also “possibly impact Fleet Readiness,” Seibel said.

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke said the reduction in funding for this year will not affect the long-term implementation effort.

“There was not a budget cut. There was a rephasing of money from FY18 to FY19 at our request to reflect our ability to execute upcoming technology conversion contracts. Therefore, there is no overall impact to RRL or Sailor 2025,” Burke said.

FATAL COLLISIONS

The program has widespread support from the Navy’s top brass, and is seen as a critical piece of efforts to modernize the enlisted work force over the next decade.

The RRL reforms will reduce sailors’ upfront training at “A schools” by as much as 30 percent and get sailors fresh out of boot camp to the fleet faster than ever.

To make up for the shortened schooling, the Navy is creating a new track of mid-career training that will be given in “blocks.” This will rely less on traditional brick-and-mortar residential schoolhouses and create distance learning while sailors simultaneously fulfill current job assignments.

The reforms aim to break down the walls between today’s rating career paths and allow future sailors to cross-train, qualify and advance in additional ratings related to their own. Full implementation of the new RRL training is a critical step toward broader personnel reforms, officials say.

Some Navy officials hope that the people in Washington who are eyeing RRL for cuts will take into account the findings of the investigations into the 7th Fleet collisions that killed 17 sailors last year.

“You hate to point to tragic events to make your point, but that’s why we need to stay the course in RRL, and ask everyone to put their heads down and put the money and support behind this effort,” said a fleet forces official with knowledge of the policy.

The Navy’s own investigations into the collisions of the destroyers McCain and Fitzgerald identified enlisted training deficiencies resulting in sailors not possessing basic skills to operate critical equipment, a contributing factor in the fatal mishaps.

Onboard the McCain, the investigation identified that bridge watch standers lacked the basic understanding of the function of the high-tech helm.

On the Fitzgerald, sailors lacked basic understanding of the operation and capabilities of radars, leading to ineffective use.

In both cases, lack of effective training at multiple levels led to the erosion of proficiency in individual and team skills, as well as onboard qualification programs.

The Strategic Review said the roots of those problems were cuts to manning and training that the Navy made more than a decade ago.

“The combined effects of Optimum Manning and the Navy’s implementation of the 2001 Revolution in Training significantly degraded enlisted expertise,” the report said.

SOUND FAMILIAR?

The Navy Secretary’s strategic review specifically compared the RRL funding move with the Navy’s previous failed training program, the “Revolution in Training.

Started in 2001, the Revolution in Training slashed schoolhouse training for junior sailors and forced sailors to learn on the job in the fleet, resulting in overworked sailors and a gradual decline in proficiency.

It was initially touted as an overhaul of the Navy’s schoolhouse-centric system, one that would transition the service to a “lifelong-learning continuum,” relying on training technologies the Navy didn’t have fully on hand and would need to develop.

But that training reform effort ended in failure in 2009 because its upfront costs were not sufficiently funded and the “continuum” of learning never began.

The result was cutting schoolhouse training and traditional instructors in favor of on-the-job learning that involved computer-based training and fleet-based “facilitators,” senior sailors whose job was to ensure sailors completed coursework.

But the computer-based training was never fully implemented, and improvement funds were redirected to other programs.

“This led to a 21% decrease in schoolhouse instructor funding,” the review noted, which added that the failure really occurred when the Navy not only took the instructor cuts up front, but proceeded to redirect training funds into other Navy programs before the service.

Complaints from the fleet about the quality of the sailors reporting to their units prompted a June 2009 Navy Inspector General report that concluded the Navy had failed to execute the reforms.

“Increased requirements to train in the Fleet come at a time of increased operational tempo,” the IG report said. “Mission growth, combined with manpower reductions and other personnel initiatives, has resulted in fewer experienced sailors in the fleet and less time to train new personnel. There are valid concerns about the possible long-term impact and how this will manifest in the Fleet within the next eight to 10 years, when the seasoned, experienced sailors have retired.”

Now, with the new RRL effort, the Navy has again already cut the number of instructors based on the planned shift in training. Furthermore, the funds made available by those reductions are not being protected for reinvestment into Ready Relevant Learning, the review said.

Also, the report warned the Navy against taking expected costs savings from reduced schoolhouse training days and spending that money somewhere else, rather than using it to boost the restructured training programs to ensure their success. This, too, worried the reviewers.

And while that is part of what is happening, a recently retired Navy source familiar with how the program is structured says the reasons Congress is looking at cutting funding boils down to how the Navy is managing the financial side of the training program. The funds are being kept in a large manpower operating budget instead of being in their own account specifically earmarked for RRL only.

This means, the official said, the funds can easily be reprogrammed elsewhere. And when Congress sees less being spent on training than was initially allocated, the normal reaction is to assume it’s being overfunded and to move those funds elsewhere.

The strategic reviewers saw this happening and raised a red flag.

“Failure to preserve the resources required to implement and sustain Ready Relevant Learning will inevitably recreate and exacerbate the shortcomings experienced with Revolution in Training,” the review said.

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