WASHINGTON — The second deadly collision in as many months between a U.S. destroyer and a larger, slower commercial ship in Asian waters has shaken the U.S. Navy to its foundations and raised questions about the fleet’s readiness in the most congested and volatile region on Earth.
The collision between the McCain and an oil tanker three times its size outside the Strait of Malacca was the most recent of four incidents in the U.S. 7th Fleet, which has included three collisions and a grounding that caused an oil spill in Tokyo Bay. While these accidents have been shocking, with a total of 17 sailors killed, there have been signs that all is not well in the 7th Fleet or the U.S. Navy more broadly for some time.
Amid accidents and sailor deaths, US Navy's top officer questions readiness of Japan-based ships
A series of warnings and alarming incidents have raised red flags about forward-deployed ships, which operate at a much higher tempo than their stateside counterparts but have also seen readiness eaten away by too much time at sea and too little time to train and maintain.
That will be the subject of a review ordered by Adm. John Richardson, chief of Naval Operations, who directed Fleet Forces Command head Adm. Phil Davidson to look at the training and readiness of forward-deployed sailors in Japan.
“There’s the longer-term review that I’ve asked Adm. Davidson, down in fleet forces command, to undertake,” Richardson said.
“This will be a broader effort, looking at a number of things. One being, what is the situation out in Japan with our forward-deployed naval forces out there? How are they executing their business? I just want to understand that more deeply in terms of training, generating that readiness that we’ve asked them to achieve and then certifying that readiness.”
‘We weren’t ready’
Davidson will not be the first to look at readiness in the 7th Fleet. In 2015, the Government Accountability Office reported that the high pace of operations was taking a heavy toll on ships forward-deployed to Japan.
Among the findings was that the break-neck pace of operations was robbing those ships of needed training and maintenance. Ships stationed in Japan spent on average 42 more days out to sea than their stateside counterparts, the GAO found.
“GAO … found that the high pace of operations the Navy uses for overseas-homeported ships limits dedicated training and maintenance periods, which has resulted in difficulty keeping crews fully trained and ships maintained,” the report read.
And that wear-and-tear has taken a significant toll on the condition of the ships that come back to the states from Japan after a rotation forward.
The amphibious assault ship Essex is a case in point. The big deck was in terrible condition when it returned to the states from Japan in 2012, according to the GAO report. Years of deferred maintenance led to the costliest depot maintenance period in the U.S. Navy’s history, the report said, and raised questions about the attention the Navy paid to its material condition while deployed overseas for 12 years. The ship also suffered damages when it collided with the oiler Yukon off the California coast in 2012.
“During this depot maintenance, the Essex required over twice the amount of maintenance work the Navy expected to perform,” the report reads. “According to the Navy Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program documentation, the Navy used 364,280 labor days on the Essex compared to the 177,206 labor days that were planned for this depot availability.”
Similar issues arose with the guided-missile cruiser Cowpens, which was stationed in Japan until 2013 when the crew of the cruiser Antietam swapped with Cowpens to accompany the cruiser home to either be repaired or decommissioned.
When the Antietam’s Capt. Robert Tortora assumed command of Cowpens, he reported “significant deficiencies in the material condition of the ship,” according to a U.S. Navy investigation into a commanding officer relief in 2014.
But despite the condition of the ship, it was quickly turned around and sent back to the Western Pacific for a troubled deployment that ended in the ship’s commanding officer, top enlisted sailor and chief engineer being canned.
Fleet bosses fast-tracked the ship for a full deployment three months after its San Diego homecoming, a target it missed by almost two months while the ship was undergoing more than $7 million in repairs, according to the investigation.
“We’re weren’t ready for an operational deployment,” said a former senior Cowpens crew member interviewed at the time. “Get underway, pull into ports, show the flag — we could do that. But we weren’t ready to be operational.”
Despite extensive repairs prior to leaving Japan and after it pulled into San Diego, crew members interviewed at the time said that they had the impression the repairs were temporary fixes to merely survive the deployment and get back to the U.S. for a more extensive overhaul.
Those kinds of ill-conceived decisions to push unready ships forward to meet operational demands have become increasingly commonplace as budget cuts have eaten into primarily training and maintenance accounts. And this is common not just in the Western Pacific, but fleetwide.
In an effort to find a long-term solution, former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus pushed hard to preserve shipbuilding to reverse a lengthy decline in the number of ships in the fleet.
Over nearly two decades, the fleet has dropped from 333 ships to 272 ships, but the number of ships deployed at any one time has stayed steady at about 100 ships, according to a 2015 study by Bryan Clark, an analyst and former senior aide to retired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.
“So if you just do simple math, that would indicate that each of the ships in the Navy is doing 20 percent more work and being deployed 20 percent more than its predecessors back in 1998,” Clark said when the report was released.
“The demand signal hasn’t dissipated, it has only gotten worse,” he added.
Those looking for parties at least partly responsible for the increasing demands on the fleet can look no further than the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, when he was the four-star commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, demanded the U.S. Navy provide two aircraft carriers and their associated support ships between 2011 and 2013 until across-the-board budget cuts that year forced the Pentagon to cancel the two-carrier requirement.
That move, which was intended to deter Iranian aggression, forced the Navy from 6.5-month deployments to nine-and 10-month deployments just to cover the Navy’s presence requirements while the fleet desperately tried to work through the resulting maintenance backlogs.
The extended deployments, which the Navy has struggled to bring back under seven months, exacerbated creeping deferred maintenance issues that were made even worse by the budget sequestration cuts.
The Navy only started to get the problem in hand after convincing combatant commanders and senior DoD leaders to let the Navy gap carrier presence in both the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific starting in the fall of 2015.
These kinds of trades on presence in the Pacific and Persian Gulf in favor of maintenance and training are vital to keeping a healthy fleet and its sailors healthy, former Fleet Forces Command head Adm. John Harvey said in a February interview.
“My mantra as Fleet Forces Command was always the wholeness for the fleet for the long term,” he said. “That always runs into the insatiable demand for everything that Navy brings to the combatant commanders.”
“It has to be clear that to make these wonderful ships, aircraft and submarines available for the long term, you have to pay attention to maintenance,” he added. “And for our people to perform correctly, you have to pay attention to training.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.