Making sure the US fleet's warships are ready for combat is the responsibility of Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the US Navy's top surface warfare officer. He manages some of the Navy's newest ships, such as the littoral combat ship and soon, the Zumwalt-class destroyers, along with cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers and amphibious ships that have been in service since the 1980s and 1990s. All of those ships need to be manned, trained and equipped between heavy operational commitments and strained maintenance budgets.
Q. What are your priorities for 2015?
A. It's all about warfighting first and the competence and confidence that will lead to that. I am driving to ensure we have confident commanding officers, confident department heads, confident chiefs. Confident in their ability, their training, and in the ship that they're standing on, and that we've created competence in their mind so that whatever mission they're assigned, they can go execute it.
Q. The Navy proposed inactivating a number of cruisers and amphibious ships for several reasons, including prolonging the lives of the cruisers, dealing with manpower shortages in the fleet — specifically sea-going billets — and saving some money. What are your plans now that Congress has rejected those proposals?
A. Certainly there is work that has to be done with respect to all of the players involved in the execution of the cruiser modernization. I think there's flexibility in that these ships will remain in commission and the individuals that would require a long time to get back, we're maintaining those billets. If a national emergency comes and we have to move rapidly to return those ships to service, we can do that.
With manpower, the trend I'm seeing is that we're filling the billets to a higher level and the required skills is at a higher percentage as well. The other thing is manning levels fluctuate within the cycle of the ship — typically, when a ship returns from deployment, a lot of individuals will transfer off, causing a dip in the manning and a dip in personnel readiness. Then we start to build that back up through the maintenance period into the training phases. There has been, I would say, not significant but certainly perceptible movement towards getting that manning up earlier in the cycle. As I have circulated around the fleet and talked to the wardrooms and the chiefs' messes, the trend is positive with respect to where we're going with manning.
Q. The Navy has been requesting less money for maintenance in recent years — part of the budget process and where to make cuts. What are your primary maintenance concerns?
A. The funding has come with tremendous support from the Congress in plussing up our accounts with overseas contingency operations funding. So with the support of Congress, I'm in pretty darn good shape. I think we're funded to a level that allows us to get the maintenance done that needs to get done.
Now, with respect to the ability to go ahead and maintain the fleet, the interesting piece about the maintenance side is that the asset I'm most concerned about is not funding, it's the time. The maintenance may require the ship to be in a maintenance availability for X number of days, but I've only got Y and Y is significantly less than X. So we need to work with the contractors to be as efficient as possible so that we can get the ships out.
Q. The cruiser Cowpens, as a case in point, spent many years based in Japan before coming home in 2013 in very poor material condition. The Navy is increasing the number of ships forward-deployed. Are you concerned those ships are getting proper maintenance?
A. You know, it's interesting where the accountability lies for the material condition of the ships that are returning from [being forward-deployed]. I would say that the accountability lies more with the crew than with the quality or lack of quality of the maintenance organization that exists in Yokosuka.
I was over in Yokosuka in the fall, and was on [destroyer] Curtis Wilbur and [cruiser] Shiloh. Inspection results from Shiloh came back pretty darn good. Curtis Wilbur — pretty old ship — but I was pretty darn impressed with A., the material condition of the ship, and B., the quality of the work that we were getting out of Ship Repair Facility Yokosuka. I'm not concerned about the quality of the maintenance that we can apply to our ships forward. I think we need to make sure that we have a properly trained crew that can properly prepare for and execute working with our forward deployment maintenance organizations to make sure we maintain the material condition of the ships.
Q. You have four littoral combat ships now in service, with one deployed and operational and taking part in the AirAsia search. This year is a big year for LCS with the fleet doubling to eight. Also, by September, all the frigates will be gone. Does LCS really replace the frigates in the roles and missions those ships have been carrying out? Or is LCS going to have its own path?
A. I think I have a two-point answer here. The littoral combat ship is certainly capable of filling in the missions those frigates have been executing. However, I think that would be shortchanging the ship significantly with respect to the building of capability the fleet needs today. For example, [LCS has] a robust visit, board, search and seizure capability, a much more robust air capability. When the anti-submarine warfare [ASW] package goes in, then we'll be if not the best surface ASW package that we have in the United States Navy, one of the very best. I would be shocked if it is not the best that we have. When you put an MH-60R helicopter on that ship, you put a variable depth sonar on it, and you put a multifunction towed array on that thing, that ship is going to be eye-watering. The only thing that might exceed it is our T-AGOS ships and that shouldn't be surprising to anybody.
Q. So you think that once it's operational, the LCS system will be superior to what the DDGs have?
A. By virtue of the fact that is has a variable depth continuous active sonar, the short answer is yes. I think that where the real power is going to be is when we link a destroyer with an SQQ-89A(V)15 with a littoral combat ship with the ASW package itself and we go multistack below the layer. That is going to be tremendous. With a Romeo helicopter on that LCS and one or two on that DDG you can have, if not continuous, nearly continuous Romeo coverage from three helicopters. That's going to be a beautiful day.
Q. Last fall the LCS Coronado carried out a one-time, one-shot test firing of the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile. What did that test demonstrate?
A. Was it tactically relevant? I would say the short answer is yes. I can take that launcher and put it on anything — a Military Sealift Command ship, a littoral combat ship — and further distribute lethality. I'm not saying we've got any plans to do it. But if everybody's got a 130-mile range anti-surface missile, all of a sudden, if you're the adversary, you've got a hell of a problem.
Q. The Navy is working now to install Hellfire Longbow missiles onto the LCS. Will a true surface-to-surface missile follow?
A. Hellfire Longbow certainly extends the range of those ships out to a not-insignificant distance. But I think that's a defensive position. And where I think we need to take littoral combat ships is to get them really into the offensive game.
Q. The new destroyer Zumwalt is going to go to sea for the first time in a few months on initial sea trials. Delivery is probably sometime this winter. What are you doing to prepare for the entry into service of that ship and her two sisters?
A. My hat — the manning, training and equip hat — is ensuring that we're ready to bring the ship into San Diego, that we are driving down a path that allows us to provide the proper shore-side support for the ship as we then go integrate it into the fleet. When we get the Naval Surface Warfighting Development Center up and operational, I have every intention to turn to Rear Adm. Jim Kilby and say, "Kilby, tell me how we're going to use this thing. Tell me how we're going to develop the concept of operations. Push the envelope on these ships, OK? Make the enemy think."
You know, we're bringing a hell of a lot of capability with that ship. And I think this is a destroyer that is going to cause significant ripples in the tactical pond as we explore the capabilities that this ship will deliver.
Q. You constantly talk about things sailors should focus on. But are there things sailors should not be so worried about in favor of focusing on other things?
A. I'm not interested in removing requirements. I think that we have attempted to remove requirements in the past and I think that's bit us in the butt.
One of the things I am looking hard at is the execution of personnel support detachment responsibilities. And interestingly enough, we moved the execution of those requirements ashore. But when we did, we had a whole other series of requirements heaped on the sailors on the ship. When they report onboard ship, they shouldn't have to worry about pay and their leave balance and whether or not the allotment is going to their wife's or their husband's bank account. That should be lock, stock and barrel the responsibilities of other individuals. So I'm making sure the folks on the beach are doing the right things to relieve that for those people out on the ships.