The advanced radar systems aboard U.S. cruisers and destroyers are in their worst shape ever, according to an independent probe into U.S. Navy readiness, raising questions about the surface fleet's ability to take on its high-profile new mission next year defending Europe from ballistic missiles.
Poor training, impenetrable bureaucracy and cultural resignation have caused a spike in the number of technical problems and a dip in the operational performance of the Aegis system, considered the crown jewel of the U.S. surface force, the investigation found.
And if that's the situation with Aegis - which includes warships' iconic, hexagonal SPY 1 radar arrays - the panel wondered what that could mean for other, lower-profile equipment.
"The SPY radar has historically been the best supported system in the surface Navy, and coincidentally supports one of the most critical Navy missions today: ballistic missile defense. Yet SPY manpower, parts, training and performance are in decline."
If that's the case, the report said, "it can be assumed that less important systems could well be in worse material condition."
The findings came in the report of the "fleet review panel," convened last September by Adm. John Harvey, head of Fleet Forces Command, to conduct an outside assessment into the readiness of the surface force.
The seven-member panel, which was chaired by retired Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle and included two serving admirals, produced a comprehensive indictment of Navy decision-making since the late 1990s: Admirals' preoccupation with saving money, which led them to cut crews and "streamline" training and maintenance, led to a surface force that can't keep its ships in fighting shape.
The Balisle panel's report, which has not been publicly released, was obtained by Navy Times, a sister publication to Defense News. Navy officials in the Pentagon deferred questions about it to Naval Sea Systems Command.
NavSea officials did not respond by the time this newspaper went to press.
Although sailors and other observers have said before that cuts in crew sizes hurt readiness, Balisle's report is the first to detail so many problems with Aegis, widely considered the world's finest seagoing radar and combat system. It is so powerful and adaptable, in fact, the Obama administration is counting on it becoming a permanent ballistic missile defense shield for Europe next year, taking the place of ground-based sensors and weapons as U.S. warships make standing patrols in the Mediterranean.
But Aegis, like the rest of the fleet, has become a victim of personnel cuts and the Navy's labyrinthine internal organization, the report said. Casualty reports are up 41 percent from fiscal year 2004, and those requiring technical assistance are up 45 percent.
Over the same period, SPY radar performance, as observed by the Board of Inspection and Survey, has steadily worsened for cruisers and destroyers.
The report includes a sample of eight cruisers visited in the past several months by InSurv, whose scores on Aegis readiness form a distinct downward trend.
What's causing it? The panel found many reasons, including:
å There aren't enough qualified people in the right jobs.
å Sailors aren't fully trained on maintaining the radars.
å It's too much work navigating the Navy bureaucracy to order replacement parts, and as such, crews have grown to accept "degradation," Balisle's panel found.
For example, ships are not ordering replacement voltage regulators, the report said, which SPY radars need to help manage their prodigious consumption of ship's power. Crews aren't ordering them because technicians can't get the money to buy spares, so commanders are knowingly taking a risk in operating their Aegis systems without replacements.
"The technicians can't get the money to buy spare parts," the report said. "They haven't been trained to the requirement. They can't go to their supervisor because, in the case of the DDGs, they likely are the supervisor. They can't repair the radar through no fault of their own, but over time, the non-responsiveness of the Navy system, the acceptance of the SPY degradation by the Navy system and their seniors, officers and chiefs alike, will breed (if not already) a culture that tolerates poor system performance. The fact that requests for technical assistance are up Navy-wide suggests there is a diminished self-sufficiency in the surface force. Sailors are losing their sense of ownership of their equipment and are more apt to want others to fix it."
Naval expert A.D. Baker III, a retired Office of Naval Intelligence analyst and longtime editor of "Combat Fleets of the World," called the Balisle findings "utterly damning."
"The Aegis readiness shortfall is just one of a vast number of problems related to pushing people too far and not giving them the training or funding resources to carry out their duties properly," Baker said.
He said the report's findings showed the Defense Department's priorities for European ballistic missile defense had been misplaced.
"This will significantly affect our putative BMD capability. The [Pentagon's] money is going to missile development and procurement, not to maintenance of the detection and tracking system - without which the best missiles in the world won't be of much use." å