Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of the U.S. Navy's surface forces, describes how the fleet can improve.

ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy’s top surface warfare officer has said the military must ease the burden on the service if it’s to fix issues that came to light after a pair of collisions that took the lives of 17 sailors last summer.

In prepared remarks delivered at the annual Surface Navy Association’s National Symposium, Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden said his conversations with sailors in the western Pacific led him to believe that growing the fleet and reducing commitments are the two things that will get at the problem.

“They need help, and by help, they mean time,” Rowden said of his sailors. “Time to maintain their gear, time to refresh their basic individual and team skills, and time to unwind. Time will only come from two things, or a combination of them: more ships and fewer obligations. It is hard to see things any other way.”

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It was a remarkable statement from a senior Navy leader coming from a culture that prides itself on rogering up to tasks — a tendency that drove several of the issues raised in Fleet Forces Command’s comprehensive review. The Navy often cites that it has roughly the same number of ships deployed on a daily basis as it did at the end of the Cold War with a much larger fleet than it has today.

Rowden said he was sure Navy leadership was acting on the recommendations in the comprehensive review, but then pointedly said that some of the recommendations would take more money to execute.

“I am confident that the leadership team going forward will move out smartly to tackle the problems identified in the comprehensive review,” he said. “I’ve been gratified to work closely with the [vice chief of naval operations, Adm. Bill Moran], who is leading the effort to address the deficiencies noted in the review. Some are already fixed. Some will take more effort. And some will require additional time and resources.”

The comprehensive review made the case that as the military placed additional burden on the fleet, the busiest ships in the Japan-based 7th Fleet started laboring under a culture of accepting increasing risk and cutting corners to keep underway ships that might not have been ready.

The crushing schedule also took time away from routine training, as the ships focused on real-world training.

Rowden, who will retire in the coming weeks, has spent his tenure championing a concept called “distributed lethality,” which means putting more weapons with longer range on more ships to make everything that floats a potential threat to an adversary. Rowden made the case that distributed lethality was in line with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s vision for the Navy.

In a roundtable with reporters prior to his remarks, Rowden addressed several initiatives put in place in the wake of the accidents, including a circadian rhythm-watch bill that seeks to ensure sailors can get seven hours of sleep a day.

Rowden said his goal was to make sure ships are not just minding the watch bill but also the daily routine that cuts into rack time for sailors.

“I think it’s not only circadian rythym but its also circadian routine on the ship,” Rowden told reporters. “Ships that can operate independently without any outside influences can set a routine and execute it very methodically. But on surface ships where you have flight operations, mine-sweeping operations, and you have general quarters drills and underway replenishment — all these things that interrupt the routine make it a challenge.

“One of the things that we have to do broadly is as we set the routine for these ships, we have to make sure we are taking into account the circadian rhythm these ships are trying to execute.”

Rowden also cautioned that sometimes there is no avoiding cutting a sailor’s rest time short.

“Sometimes it can’t be helped,” Rowden said. “You’ve got helos up and the helo has an emergency: right there, emergency flight quarters. You’ve got to get the team up, you’ve got to get them on the deck. But underway replenishments, some of those other disruptive things, we try to schedule those in such a way that we allow that seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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