Magazine article National Defense

Surface Navy Must Refocus on Basic Seamanship

Magazine article National Defense

Surface Navy Must Refocus on Basic Seamanship

Article excerpt

In the past few months, the Navy experienced the worst peacetime surface ship collisions in over 41 years.

When the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald collided with commercial vessels, it claimed the lives of 17 sailors during routine "independent steaming" operations in the western Pacific Ocean.

These tragic incidents, coupled with the earlier grounding of the USS Antietam and collision of the USS Lake Champlain with a South Korean fishing vessel, have raised significant concerns about the state of the U.S. surface fleet's readiness and operational proficiency.

Of additional concern is that all of these ships were part of the Seventh Fleet and the Navy's Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF), whose area of responsibility in the Western Pacific includes some of the busiest shipping lanes in world, as well as the strategically important waters off the coasts of China, North Korea and eastern Russia.

In the wake of the McCain collision, the U.S. Navy quickly responded with several actions.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered a Navy-wide 24-hour "operational pause" or "safety stand down" requiring all fleet commanders and commanding officers to ensure safe operations and identify areas for improvement.

Adm. Philip Davidson, Fleet Forces Command commander, launched a comprehensive 60-day review of surface fleet operations, training and certification of deployed ships with a focus on the FDNF ships.

And finally, Adm. Scott H. Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, relieved the Seventh Fleet Commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.

While these are significant responses, will they be sufficient to alter the wayward course of U.S. Navy surface forces and Seventh Fleet?

Many in the American public have been asking how the "world's best navy" could suffer such drastic failures in basic seamanship and navigation. Shouldn't avoiding a collision be relatively simple for a U.S. Navy destroyer equipped with modern technology such as GPS and radars?

While it would be premature to speculate on the specific causes for the recent collisions, as it will be weeks or months before the Navy completes its detailed investigations, there have been significant warning signs of problems within the service and Seventh Fleet in particular. Navy leadership has warned of decreasing fleet readiness due to the high operational tempo of its ships, as well as maintenance backlogs that have resulted in some ships unable to go to sea.

In addition, several recent Government Accountability Office reports, as well as a 2010 Fleet Review Panel on surface force readiness, warned of the impacts of increased deployment lengths, reduced training time, overworked sailors and deferred maintenance on the operational readiness of Navy warships.

The Navy's investigations will undoubtedly find numerous deficiencies with the crews that ultimately led to the collisions. However, a broader examination of the Navy's surface forces, and the Seventh Fleet in particular, provides some more far-reaching issues affecting the fleet that contributed to these tragic events.

While recent reports and readiness warnings from Navy leadership have focused on the reduced material conditions of surface ships, it is the surface warfare community's eroded proficiency in basic seamanship and navigation or "ship-driving" that most likely played a major role in these tragic events.

How did the Navy get to the point where its front-line deployed ships collide while conducting, as Swift stated to his commanders, "the most basic of operations?" Although numerous issues might be at play, there are a few that are arguably the most substantial.

First, the Navy fleet and its sailors are being stretched too thin to meet the insatiable operational demands of the nation and the combatant commanders.

There have also been substantial and detrimental changes to the surface warfare community's training and professional development over the past 14 years. …

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