The U.S. Navy released the over 170-page Comprehensive Review of surface force incidents and incidents at sea Thursday, a day after releasing separate reports on two specific ship collisions (Defense Daily, Nov. 1).
On Aug. 24 the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson directed Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, to initiate this 60-day review of incidents at sea. He was directed to focus on the Seventh Fleet operational deployment with results to inform Navy-wide improvements.
This was one of several measures undertaken after the Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) separately collided with commercial vessels in the Pacific over the summer, resulting in the deaths of (Defense Daily, Aug. 21).
Before these collisions, the USS Antietam (CG-54) was grounded in January and the USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) had a non-deadly collision with a South Korean fishing vessel in May.
The review team was tasked with looking into individual training and professional development, unit-level training and performance, development and certification of deployed operational and mission standards, deployed operational employment and risk management, material readiness of systems, and practical utility of navigation equipment and combat system.
During a briefing with reporters on Thursday, the CNO noted the report found that over a long period of time “rising pressure to meet operational demands led those in command to rationalize declining standards – standards in fundamental seamanship and watch standing skills, teamwork, operational safety, assessment and professional culture.”
Headquarters was trying to manage the imbalance between current ship numbers and the increasing number of operational missions assigned to them, particularly in the Western Pacific. The report notes that up until the mishaps, all of the ships had been performing operationally with good outcomes, “which ultimately reinforced the rightness of trusting past decisions. This rationalized the continued deviation from the sound training and maintenance practices that set the conditions for safe operations.
The demand for ships ready to support required operations in the region exceeded the amount that could be generated from surface forces based in Yokosuka, Japan, “and without an effective process to clearly define available supply and the associated readiness, risks were taken to provide these ships for dynamic and short notice tasking,” the report said.
“Evidence of skill proficiency (on ships) and readiness problems (at headquarters) were missed, and over time, even normalized to the point that more time could be spent on operational missions.”
The report noted this succession of incidents revealed a weakness in command structures meant to oversee readiness and manage operational risk for forward deployed forces in Japan and the West Pacific region overall.
Each incident was the result of “fundamental failures to responsibly plan, prepare and execute ship activities to avoid undue operational risk.” Ship leaders and watch teams failed in basic ways to use available information to gain and sustain situational awareness on the bridge and prevent dangerous conditions from developing, the report said.
The comprehensive review said individual mishap reports also support the notion that there was not enough rigor in finding and solving problems at three stages: planning in anticipation of increased tasking; during practice for abnormal or emergency situations in the ships with mishaps; and in the execution of the actual events.
The report tied these problems, in part, to what top Navy leaders have told Congress in repeated testimony: that the 2011 Budget Control Act funding restrictions and repeated Continuing Resolutions limit the Navy’s ability to supply its forces to the full amid increased tasking and reduced forces.
“The risks that were taken in the Western Pacific accumulated over time, and did so insidiously. The dynamic environment normalized to the point where individuals and groups of individuals could no longer recognize that the processes in place to identify, communicate and assess readiness were no longer working at the ship and headquarters level,” the report said.
“In every mishap, departures from procedures or approved customary practices were deemed to have directly contributed to the mishap.”
The comprehensive review team consisted of 33 members who conducted site visits, document reviews, and interviews. They included a “diverse cross-section of talent” from the surface force, other services, other warfare communities, industry, civilian maritime experts, academia, and other professions.
The CNO highlighted that several members had “substantial” experience in conducting major audits and investigations.
While briefing reporters, Richardson said preliminary repair cost estimate for DDG-62 and DDG-56 damage is about $600 million. He added that the Navy will learn more about the McCain’s damage cost once it reaches Yokosuka.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was disturbed by the systemic Navy problems leading to the mishaps.
“These deaths were entirely avoidable had Pentagon leadership in recent years heeded the warning signs in time, taken the appropriate actions, and been honest with themselves and the country about the readiness challenges they face,” Thornberry said in a statement after receiving a briefing from the CNO.
Thornberry agreed the mishaps came from asking the fleet to do too much with too few resources, “forcing the Navy to take shortcuts in training and maintenance in order to maximize operational time.”
While the Navy is committed to address the issues in the report, “Congress has a role to play as well. I am ready to support the Navy’s request for any additional training, manpower, or equipment they need to prevent these tragedies in the future,” Thornberry added.