WASHINGTON — The U.S. surface fleet is setting its sights on restoring readiness, an effort led by a new boss who is laser-focused on a force that was twice battered in 2017 by deadly collisions in the Pacific.
Since taking the helm at Naval Surface Force Pacific, the fleet’s new type commander has made clear both publicly and internally that proper manning, training and equipping of surface ships is his priority. Vice Adm. Richard Brown stepped into the role as SURFOR commander for outgoing Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, who stepped aside after the Navy’s top adjudicator for the collisions recommended he be relieved.
A manpower expert who most recently served as the commanding officer of Navy Personnel Command, Brown was dispatched to Naval Base Coronado with a mandate to focus on the basics of manning, training and equipping his ships for operations.
This refocusing is a public break from Rowden’s tenure, which was focused from the outset on future operational concepts and capabilities. And while experts tend to agree that the training and readiness lapses uncovered in the wake of the separate collisions of the destroyers John S. McCain and Fitzgerald necessitated a readiness-focused SURFOR, some are wary that swinging too far from future capabilities could undermine a crucial role played by the three-star head of a cautious community.
“I think it’s understandable and was inevitable given the blows of last year — the congressional testimony, the things uncovered in the Comprehensive and Strategic Readiness Reviews — that we were going to see a hard swing of the pendulum over to readiness,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Center for a New American Security. “What I think you’ll also see is an overcorrection.”
In an internal document obtained by Defense News, Brown laid out an ambitious agenda that seems tailor-made to go after key components of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan for ships based in the United States and after items that came up in the concurrent reviews from Fleet Forces Command and the secretary of the Navy for forward-deployed ships.
And the messaging in public has been focused on the same mantra of restoring readiness. In a recently published blog post, Brown laid out his command philosophy listing “good stewardship” as his top priority.
“The maintenance, modernization and training completed today not only benefit our current operations, but also preserve our future capability,” Brown wrote. “Therefore, we need to ensure the highest level of care, cleanliness, and material condition aboard our ships. If we follow the guiding principle of good stewardship, we will produce warships ready for tasking by our fleet commanders.”
Brown also listed professional development and safety as his other two priorities, rounding out an intensely readiness-focused agenda.
Of professional development, Brown wrote that he wanted to see sailors trained up and down the chain of command to not only know their job but the job above theirs as well.
“Our ships must be able to take a hit and continue to fight,” Brown said. “A crew that knows the ship’s missions and her systems will be able to take that ship into the fight and win.”
Uniting the clans
Prior to taking the helm at SURFOR, Brown was told by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson to bring together the surface warfare community.
It would be unfair to suggest that Rowden overlooked readiness during his time at SURFOR: Among his first acts as a type commander was to send messages to his commanders to refocus on executing maintenance checks and instilling a war-fighting mentality by regularly shooting guns and using the ships’ weapons.
But the overriding focus of his time at SURFOR until at least the Fitzgerald collision in June had been organizing the force around a concept that put more guns on more ships and increased the range and lethality of surface ship’s weapons. The goal was to make those platforms more relevant at the longer distances required to fight in the Asia-Pacific region. This was a primary talking point.
In the wake of the collisions, as the force came under intense scrutiny, a belief began to take hold that the focus had drifted too far toward both future capabilities and supporting the intense demands placed on a smaller force, as well as too far away from readiness.
Richardson said in January that solidifying the community with a common vision was his direction to Brown.
“There is just such tremendous talent in the surface warfare community, and they’ve been through some tough times recently,” Richardson told a group of reporters after a hearing on Capitol Hill. “Not just physically tough times, but culturally as well. So bringing that team together and unifying that talent — unifying the clans — so we can line up those vectors.”
In a follow-up statement to Defense News, Richardson alluded to readiness as the key priority.
Brown is “a leader who knows how to ensure our crews are ready for high-end war fighting,” Richardson’s statement read. “He’s a leader that will improve operational safety. He’s a leader that knows how to build winning teams. I strongly believe that he’s the exact right person to move the surface community forward in meaningful ways to become stronger than ever.”
Striking the balance
Experts who spoke to Defense News largely agreed that in the wake of two preventable accidents that killed 17 sailors, it was appropriate for the focus to be on getting ships ready to deploy and patrol.
But analysts also warned of having a three-star who oversees the community from both a readiness and future capabilities perspective.
“They have to reach a balance, but I think the surface community recognizes that things swung too far to the side of future capabilities and concepts,” said Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“I think he’s got the right sight picture about what he needs to focus on, but in the future, he needs to make sure he’s reintegrating that focus on future war fighting and the direction the surface community needs to go in,” he continued. “That’s sort of the value of having a three-star, with seniority, who is focused on what’s going on in the fleet today — it gives them some perspective on where things need to go moving forward.”
In the interim, Hendrix said there is likely to be a stricter adherence to readiness standards coming out of the surface force, similar to the focus established in the submarine community by the late legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover.
“I think there is going to be more discipline and more checklists involved in training the surface force,” Hendrix said. “The CNO, coming out of the nuke community, has probably looked at some of the readiness issues in the surface force and scratched his head wondering how this could happen.
“I suspect we’ll see more of a Rickover-like approach to surface readiness.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.