The aftershocks of the bad year the U.S. Navy had in 2017 continue to emerge. The latest is the GAO (U.S. government auditors) report on progress in dealing with the many training, maintenance and personnel problems the Navy has been unable to deal with since the 1990s. None of these problems were secrets but the lack of progress in developing and implementing effective solutions was kept quiet by the navy. The progress, or lack of, in dealing with these problems is no longer in the shadows and is now subject to constant attention. That is long overdue and the details are not pretty.
What brought all this to light was questioning why during 2017 the U.S. Navy 7th fleet temporarily lost three ships to “navigation error” damage within an eight-month period and had another similar incident that did not injure anyone or take the ship out of service. One of the damaged ships was back in service by the end of 2017 but the other two are still undergoing repairs. In all these incidents the captains were relieved because of poor training of officers and sailors involved. Two of the incidents involved destroyers colliding with commercial ships at sea, which left 17 sailors dead. The cause was lower readiness levels and overwork (and subsequent crew fatigue). This turned out to be common for ships of the 7th (Pacific) Fleet. The two 7th Fleet destroyers that suffered the fatal collisions had some of the worst readiness and training ratings in the entire fleet. These ratings exist to spotlight ships, and their crews, that need the most attention from senior leadership, especially the fleet commander. There was a new Secretary of Defense in 2017 who was a retired (since 2013) marine general with firsthand experience with what was going wrong in the navy. So this time there was a lot of noise, attention, action and accountability. That soon led to 7th Fleet commander losing his job.
Finding and relieving culpable officers is easy compared to dealing with the problems with leadership and training that the three accidents made rather obvious. In 2017 it was no secret that these problems existed throughout the navy but were most acute in the 7th Fleet which has been the busiest for over a decade because it has to deal with growing Chinese naval power and more frequent crises with North Korea. One could say the problem was navy-wide but most intense in the 7th Fleet and not enough of the admirals were willing to speak up and admit to the politicians and voters what was going on and why it was not being addressed. One reason was that the politicians wanted admirals who would keep quiet and those admirals who spoke out got forced into retirement and replaced by younger officers willing to play by the new rules. This is not unique in American history or military history in general. But this occurrence is another aftereffect of the Cold War ending and attitudes changing with regard to responsibility and military readiness.
The late 2018 GAO audit found that the bad (willing to let things slide) attitude of Navy leaders had spread and the 2017 accidents were the result of everyone tolerating the lower standards. That has been reversed, at least for the surface warships. But the abuse of “waivers” (not enforcing standards for many individuals) was still around for amphibious operations and higher level joint operations. It is going to take longer to deal with all the lapses in “certified trained and ready” standards in the navy. No point of having standards if you let them do more harm than good.
The maintenance problems (not enough time or money to get it all done in time) have done enormous damage throughout the fleet. Fixing this requires more money as well as meaning fewer ships available for duty until their maintenance backlogs are tended to. Fixing this permanently requires related problems (shortages of spare parts, poor management) of shipyards be tended to. Those are politically sensitive and difficult to deal with but they are also a major part of the problem.
Another poor leadership problem is the increasing problems with overworked sailors. Veteran sailors realize that ten or more years ago you got more (often enough) sleep while at sea. A large part of this problem was self-inflicted. The navy imposed rather than implemented more automation and work practices whose main goal was to reduce crew size. That’s great if it works but a disaster if it doesn’t and made worse if senior leadership ignores the problem. It’s ignored no more but solutions are difficult to find and implement. Many sailors at sea are getting more sleep and thanks to the Internet that has improved morale. But the sleepless at sea situation is still a problem.
Another “we don’t talk about that” problem that is now openly discussed is the years of unrealistic shipbuilding and operation budgets the navy has created and tried, without success to make work. Reality tends to win in the end and the GAO tries to stay on the side of reality (difficult for any government organization to do). The navy has turned underestimating costs and using unrealistic delivery times into a tradition. This has not worked and has become more embarrassing with each passing year. It also causes constant calls for cuts in other areas of the navy budget, like maintenance and training.
There are similar problems in naval aviation. Obsessed with maintaining enough aircraft for at least ten large carriers led to serious cuts in money available for upgrading or replacing elderly aircraft. Older jets are more expensive to maintain and more dangerous to fly. There were fewer flight hours and growing problems with recruiting and retaining naval aviators (carrier aircraft pilots). No easy solutions but it is progress that more senior admirals are willing or able to admit there is a problem. Finding and implementing solutions will not be easy. The navy will continue to have a pilot shortage.
Another problem with aircraft availability is a shortage of spare parts. More and more aircraft were not able to fly because spare parts were not available when maintainers needed to install them. Stocking fewer parts saved money and the ultimate result was ignored until it couldn’t be ignored anymore. That happened in part because the new F-35s were often grounded for lack of spares and that became a media favorite. The Navy hates it when one of their problems becomes a media favorite.
Another problem was that the Navy has been getting smaller since the Cold War ended in 1991 and that process continued after 2001 because the increased defense spending went to the Army, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and marine operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The navy and air force had to get by on a lot less. For example, the number of ships in the navy went from 333 in 1998 to 277 in 2017. Yet the navy kept the same number of ships (about a hundred) deployed overseas despite there being 17 percent fewer ships. Worse the newer ships, and some of the older ones were experimenting with smaller crews (and more automation). This is still a work in progress but meanwhile, lots of 7th Fleet ships were operating at a wartime tempo. This was wearing down the crews as well as the ships.
The ships overseas are also kept busier even though crew sizes have been reduced as well and although the navy knew this was going on not a lot was done to deal with what was obviously a growing problem. For example in the two years before the accidents the number of warships in the 7th fleet not certified as ready for combat increased five-fold (to 37 percent). The reasons why were no secret either. Many sailors were working over 100 hours a week when at sea, compared to the previous “normal” of 70-81 hours a week. Ships were more frequently unable to go to sea because of deferred (caused by manpower shortages) maintenance. The most serious shortages were in training, which apparently contributed to the three serious accidents and many more events that could have gotten very ugly.
It’s an old naval tradition to punish (it used to be by hanging) an admiral if you wanted to get the attention, or just motivate, the others. This refers back to British Admiral John Byng, who was executed in 1757 for not trying hard enough to dislodge the French from the island of Minorca. This execution was later described as done to "encourage the others (admirals)." In fact, Byng died because of bad publicity surrounding the earlier execution of a junior officer for the same "offense," while senior officers got less lethal punishment. Byng was the victim of a leadership problem that keeps reoccurring.
Nevertheless, navies have always been rather harsher about inadequate leadership. It is an ancient naval tradition that someone must take responsibility and be punished when things go wrong. This attitude developed over the centuries because the seas are an unforgiving environment. Those put in charge of ships have absolute power and absolute responsibility. So, to this day, in most navies, the senior officers can quickly (or, in this case eventually) lose their jobs if things go wrong.
Admiral Byng’s demise was, historically, not all that unusual. In centuries past, many navy commanders have been executed for not doing all their boss expected of them. But 18th century Britain considered itself to be in a kinder and gentler age, thus the outcry after Byng was executed, instead of simply being dismissed (or exonerated, something his descendants still call for). Now, in the 21st century, the trend continues, as do the punishments.
Hanging went out of fashion by the 20th century but getting fired apparently has the same impact. The sailors and junior officers who take a more realistic attitude towards this bad leadership (and suffer the most from it) have been demanding more accountability for over a decade, and not staying in the navy long when senior leadership did not improve. That may change if the complacent and compliant admirals are replaced with competent and accountable ones. This was not just a navy problem, the army, air force and, to a lesser extent, the marines all suffered from it. Unlike combat which is loud, involves real bullets that focus attention and responsibility. In peacetime bureaucratic battles back home are often kept out of sight and boldness by military leaders is less common because the paper bullets are quiet and can kill a career quickly. The damage can be substantial as the 2017 collisions demonstrated. There is no easy fix for this because the military is, by design and necessity subordinate to the elected officials who often do a lot of damage with the best of intentions and little scrutiny from anyone outside the military.