SAN DIEGO — Stung by Pentagon criticism over how the Navy trains and deploys its crews, the Navy’s top officer publicly pushed back Monday, saying his fleet has made “every commitment, every deployment that we’ve been directed to do.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday’s remarks came on the first day of the annual WEST conference here and five days after Defense Secretary Mark Esper told lawmakers that the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan, or O-FRP, “hasn’t worked for years.”
“I don’t necessarily agree with the secretary’s assessment” of O-FRP, Gilday said during a town hall event. “I say that with all due respect.”
The O-FRP puts U.S.-based ships on a 36-month cycle for training, deploying and maintenance. But six years in, critics say O-FRP has been hampered by shipyard maintenance delays and manning shortages.
The Navy has failed to meet maintenance or readiness targets called for under the O-FRP, and Esper told the House Armed Services Committee that a pending independent force structure assessment was built on the assumption that the O-FRP was working, and he believes it’s not.
Despite lofty promises of stability, the Navy's fleet deployment plan is a shambles.
This is how O-FRP is supposed to work.
It starts with a maintenance phase, where ships get fixed before they’re scheduled to deploy. Then sailors enter a basic training phase, when they start qualifying for the key shipboard functions such as fighting a major fire, operating the combat system correctly and safely navigating the ship.
Crews graduate to an advanced and integrated phase when they learn high end tactics, uniting with others in a strike group to wage war as a team.
That’s followed by a deployment before moving to a roughly 14-month period of elevated readiness called the “sustainment phase.”
Gilday said ships in a surge readiness phase of the O-FRP have been called on “a lot,” and that O-FRP “has also given a degree of stability for our sailors.”
“It’s been five or six years since we put it into place and I had questions myself,” he said.
Esper has asked for a “separate independent assessment of O-FRP,” which remains ongoing, Gilday said.
“The Navy’s been very much a part of working on that,” CNO added.
Under O-FRP, a ship should be employable for roughly 22 of the 36-month construct, he said.
“If we want to change how we deploy within that 22 months, we can take a look at that,” Gilday said. “We can take a look at the cost of it.”
“At the end of the day, what we have to do is understand what the secretary of defense really wants with respect to either increased presence today or increased surge or a combination of both,” he said.
As its shipbuilder works to fix lingering technology issues, Ford heads into its flight deck certification and testing period.
Flanked at the Monday morning town hall by the commandants of the Coast Guard and Marine Corps, Gilday also announced that their services are working on a joint maritime strategy slated for a summer release.
The annual conference is sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute.
It gave CNO a platform to also defend the Navy’s progress on fixing the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, saying the warship will spend half of the next year at sea.
All type, model, series aircraft expected to join Ford on its first deployment are now certified to conduct flight operations from the flattop, Gilday said, and the carrier flattop will be “operational at the end of the month and will be the East Coast carrier for carrier quals for the next year.”
The flight deck will be certified by the end of March, he added.
Ford has started bringing along shipyard workers when underway, and the carrier logged 7,000 miles while at sea for 20 days last month.
“They were chasing the highest seas they could find in order to test the elevators,” he said.
Slow progress on the ship’s ammunition elevators has long been a sore point inside the Pentagon.
“The punch line is that the elevators are broken,” Gilday said. “The elevators have not been constructed. They’re not built. And so, we have four fully built right now, seven by the end of this summer and the remaining four finished in 2021.”
Four months of shock trials will commence about a year from now, he added.
“After that, we’re going to see what we can do with her operationally, for an extended period of time,” Gilday said. “I am very bullish on that carrier and the capability it brings.”
A Pentagon proposal would retire the first four LCS in an effort to save money.
Gilday also defended a recommendation in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to scrap the Navy’s first four littoral combat ships.
"We made a decision a number of years ago,” he said. “In order to give capability to LCS 5 and beyond, particularly the block buys we did in 2015, we decided we needed to do much more testing and use those first four hulls, so that we could better understand what were the issues with respect to hull maintenance and engineering that kept plaguing us and kept us from getting those ships to sea.”
“We used those first hulls to test and we put no money into upgrading them like the rest of the fleet,” Gilday added.
It would cost another $2 billion to get the first four hulls prepped for sea duty.
“Those first four ships are not bringing lethality to the fight,” he said. “I just didn’t see the return on investment.”
Currently, the plan is to homeport 14 littoral combat ships on the East Coast and another 17 on the West Coast, Gilday said.
Progress is being made on the various mission modules — antisubmarine warfare, minesweeping and surface fighting — for the ships, and five will deploy overseas this year, he added.
“We need to use those ships,” he said. “We need to get serious about using those ships. We have thousands of sailors that are well-trained and excited about those ships.”
Clarification: this story has been updated to reflect that Ford’s flight deck has not yet been certified, but the flight deck has been certified for all type, model, series aircraft expected to join the carrier on its first deployment.