WASHINGTON – Six years after the U.S. Navy rolled out its “Optimized Fleet Response Plan” for manning, training and deploying its ships over a 36-month cycle, many of the key promises have failed to materialize, according to public statements from Navy officials and experts.
The plan, known as O-FRP inside the Navy, had lofty goals of a more stable deployment cycle that would give sailors and families predictability, would fully man ships at the beginning of their deployment workup cycles and would allow for better planning for maintenance cycles in the public and private shipyards, tamping down on delays getting ships back to the fleet.
But according to recent statements by Navy officials, O-FRP has been failing on multiple fronts, cracking under the weight of delays in the shipyards and manning shortages on the waterfront.
Now, according to senior Navy leaders, the service and Defense Department are reviewing the plan with a critical eye and changes could be coming to a program that, on its face, has struggled to produce its intended outcomes. That means revisions to how the Navy mans, trains and deploys its forces could be in the offing.
The Navy’s top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, said in recent comments that he was taking a look at every aspect of the program to see if there were places that could perform better.
“We are taking a look at our Force Generation Model,” Gilday said at the recent Surface Navy Association symposium. “Fleet Forces is doing a study right now, we have hired a third party to take a look at [O-FRP], digging into how we maintain. Digging into how we train.”
O-FRP is the construct that governs how the U.S. Navy deploys and trains its sailors. It starts with a maintenance phase, where ships get fixed and maintained ahead of entering into a deployment work-up cycle. Then sailors enter the basic phase, where they start qualifying for the various shipboard functions such as fighting a major fire, operating the combat system correctly and safely navigating the ship.
Then ships enter an advanced and integrated phase where they learn high-end warfighting tactics and bring the strike group together to fight as a unit. That’s followed by a deployment, followed by a roughly 14-month period of elevated readiness called the “sustainment phase.”
In all, it adds up to 36 months.
At the outset it was billed as a way to drive down costs by increasing predictability and give sailors most stable and predictable schedules.
“O-FRP has been developed to enhance the stability and predictability for our Sailors and families by aligning carrier strike group assets to a new 36-month training and deployment cycle,” the Fleet Forces Command wrote in a 2014 blog coinciding with the rollout. “Beginning in fiscal year ’15, all required maintenance, training, evaluations and a single eight-month deployment will be efficiently scheduled throughout the cycle to drive down costs and increase overall fleet readiness.”
The Navy changed the eight-month deployment to seven months on the orders of then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, but the basic premise of a more predictable, more affordable and better manned Navy for sailors was the plan’s central promise. But six years since the rollout, the Navy has struggled to achieve what it set out to do.
Gilday said he was not optimistic he’d find many efficiencies in the training and maintenance phases, but he may be able to gain some efficiency and availability out of what the Navy calls it’s sustainment phase, meaning the period of time after a ship deploys that it maintains a high state of readiness to be able to surge in a crisis. But doing so would mean sending sailors who just reunited with families after seven-plus months of deployment back underway.
“I do think in terms of the way we employ our forces, in the sustainment phase as an example, that we may find ways that we can maybe more creatively employ our forces,” Gilday said. “But at the same time, I need to make sure that we have a predictable model for families and sailors, right? So, we learned our lesson in that running up to 2012 when [then-Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Bill] Gortney came up with this concept to begin with.”
Later in the conference, current Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Chris Grady said there was both the internal review and a wider Defense Department review of OFRP underway, and that both were nearing their conclusion.
But, Grady said, the fundamentals of O-FRP should be upheld, even if they make changes to adapt to the factors that have undermined it.
“I think the tenants of O-FRP are still valid, and whether we need to adjust or flex it to reflect certain realities is a valid question,” Grady said. “But the ability to rotate the force, surge the force, maintain and modernize the force and then be able to reset in stride – all in a system that acknowledges you have to have the proper [command and control] that is disciplined, repeatable, predictable, yet agile, [and] that gives options to the national command authority: those will not change.”
But since its inception, Fleet Forces has been reluctant to make significant changes to O-FRP, even as facts stacked up against the plan, said a retired Navy three star with close knowledge of O-FRP and its early development.
“Any plan with assumptions that prove to be untrue must be altered,” the three-star said. “O-FRP had several key assumptions that proved themselves wrong: set maintenance time frames, Deployment manning levels at start of Basic Phase and equipment configuration control within the [carrier strike group] to name a few.
“They all proved to be faulty assumptions, yet Navy marched on as if all the assumptions proved true. None panned out as planned. A fatal mistake to any plan yet O-FRP marched on undeterred by the facts of its failed assumptions hence the failure to meet the original promise of O-FRP.”
Is O-FRP broken?
Chief among the factors that have put O-FRP on the rocks is the Navy’s inability to plan and execute maintenance in a way that will get all the ships in a carrier strike group to both start and finish their maintenance cycles simultaneously, a critical assumption built into O-FRP.
Since assuming his post, CNO Gilday has lamented the poor track record on maintenance and argued it’s impossible to keep the fleet in good running order with compounding delays.
“We are getting 35 to 40 percent of our ships out of maintenance on time: that’s unacceptable,” Gilday said at the USNI Defense Forum in December. “I can’t sustain the fleet I have with that kind of track record.”
Grady agreed, acknowledging that maintenance has been a thorn in the side of O-FRP.
“We may flex and adjust to reflect the realities, and I think it’s fair to say maintenance is the number one driver of that,” Grady said.
But while Grady acknowledges O-FRP may need to change, it bears noting that Fleet Forces Command was thoroughly warned that getting several ships in and out of maintenance at the same time could prove unworkable.
Then-NAVSEA head Vice Adm. William Hilarides told USNI News in January 2015 that getting ships to come out of the yards simultaneously would be difficult.
“The challenge to me is, lets say you want four destroyers in a battle group, all to come out at the same time in one port? That’s a real challenge,” Hilarides told USNI News.
The current head of NAVSEA’s ships program, who at the time was in charge of the Regional Maintenance Center enterprise, backed up his boss to USNI News, saying it would be particularly challenging in places with less infrastructure.
“Your big rub there is, the challenge of OFRP is … all those ships [in a carrier strike group], they go through maintenance together, they go through training together and they deploy together,” said Rear Adm. William Galinis. “So, what our challenge is, is to be able to take all that work from all those ships and try to schedule it for roughly about the same time, and to get all that work done on time. So that’s our challenge.
“Now, in a port like Norfolk or San Diego, we have big shipyards, a lot of people, a lot of ships. You can kind of absorb that type of workload. When you go to Mayport, they’ve got like 10 ships down there [and typically cannot work on more than one or two destroyers at a time.],” he told USNI.
Galinis said that Fleet Forces would have to be responsive to the shipyards because at least that way they could plan for delays.
“They know if they give us all this work at one time, it’s going to go long anyway,” he told USNI. “So they’d rather be able to plan that and at least know when they’re getting the ship back, as opposed to, ‘nope, we’re not going to talk to you, you’ve got to go do it,’ and then the ships go long because we don’t have enough people to do the work.”
Deployment extension blues
It’s also notable that O-FRP did not help the sailors and families of the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group when the carrier scheduled to relieve it in the Arabian Gulf – dead in the middle of a crisis with Iran – suffered a casualty to its electrical distribution system, delaying the group’s deployment.
Gilday in his remarks at SNA said he extended Abraham Lincoln because he did not want to dip into contingency forces. Contingency forces are generated by the sustainment phase in O-FRP, a period where the Navy holds a carrier strike group in a state of elevated readiness after returning from deployment to be used as a surge force.
“There was a casualty with another carrier [and] I couldn’t get another carrier behind her very quickly,” Gilday acknowledged in comments. “I could have accelerated other carriers. I could have gone into that next readiness bin, the Contingency Response Forces, and we could have pulled those forces forward.
“Senior leaders decided not to do that, but in the end, we ended up extending Abe. I don’t make any apologies for that. That’s sometimes how it goes. If I had a better solution, I would have offered it.”
The Navy’s failure to relieve the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group on time resulted in one of the longest deployments of a carrier group since the Vietnam war, according to USNI News. And while a string of mechanical issues with the aircraft carriers have exacerbated the issues, the net result is that six years after O-FRP was announced, the sustainment phase did not produce a ready carrier group for Lincoln’s relief.
The lengthy Abraham Lincoln deployment raises questions about whether the Navy is adequately funding the sustainment phase of O-FRP, said Bryan Clark, a senior aid to former Chief of Naval Operations Greenert during O-FRP’s development who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“Extending ships on deployment seems in part because they are not willing to pay for ships in the sustainment phase of O-FRP to maintain readiness,” Clark said. “If you maintained a bunch of ships ready in the sustainment phase, just waiting around home port to be called up, you could bring one of them out and the need to extend ships on deployment wouldn’t exist. You’d just replace them.
“But clearly the Navy isn’t paying for that sustainment period to maintain the fleet at that high level because there aren’t ships available to replace those reaching the end of deployment or replace ships unexpectedly off deployment. You just don’t have that flexibility that O-FRP was designed to provide."
The expense of maintaining that readiness over 14 months of sustainment was well known at the time, Clark said
“We all knew that was expensive and would be subject to financial constraints,” he said.
This, too, was something senior Navy leaders warned about in 2015 during the early implementation of O-FRP. In comments at an engineering conference in 2015, then Fleet Forces maintenance boss said there was no funding available for a lengthy sustainment phase.
“I call it ‘sustainment opportunity’ because right now it’s not funded,” said Rear Adm. Richard Berkey, then-director of fleet maintenance for U.S. Fleet Forces, according to a USNI News report.
“In order to be able to keep those ships sustained after they come back from deployment — which is pretty much when they’re maximized on their readiness — we would have to invest a lot more dollars both in the training side of the house and in the people side of the house in order to keep those sailors onboard, keep the team together, keep them trained and proficient.”
Then-Navy Air Boss Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker agreed with Berkey, saying the longest he’d seen a carrier strike group retain its deployment readiness was five months.
Another key assumption that appears to be breaking down is the goal set by O-FRP to have ships manned by the beginning of the basic phase, according to Navy instruction OPNAVINST 3000.15A issued in 2014 after the O-FRP rollout.
That assumption, too, has come under pressure, with Navy Surface Warfare boss Vice Adm. Richard Brown recently testifying before a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee that he’d give the Navy a “C+ to B-“ on meeting its manning goals.
Indeed, Brown testified that most ships don’t get their full crew compliment – which in and of itself is less than what the Navy would like to have at 95 percent manning – until the beginning of the Advanced Phase.
The Navy counts a billet as “fit” if it has a sailor with the right job skills in place that can stand competently stand a watch, and filled if it has sailors that have all the required qualifications, schooling and training for the billet. To deploy “fully manned,” the ship must be at 92 percent fit and 95 percent filled.
To properly account for sailors rotating out of their billets, or “friction,” as Brown termed it, the fleet would have to buy much more than the total requirement for sailors just to man all the watch stations and do all the maintenance.
“If we wanted all the ships to be at 92 percent fit and 95 percent fill throughout their entire 36-month cycle of the OFRP, we would actually have to buy 120 percent of the requirement to account for the friction,” Brown testified
“That's the reason why I give is a B- or a C+ is that we have done a very good job over the last couple of years about paying for the total ownership cost of manpower, but we really haven't bought all of it because there's a balance. We have to balance the portfolio across the--across all the things that we need to do.”
In fact, for a variety of reasons, the Navy as of last march had more than 6,000 unfilled billets at sea. The problem, according to a 2019 report in Defense News sister publication Navy Times, are the competing demands of staffing a growing Navy while filling gaps at sea for the existing fleet.
An increase in the number of billets allotted to the fleet will, in the near future, put further pressure on Navy manpower.
A force-wide review triggered by 2017’s deadly accidents, which raised questions about whether the Navy had appropriately manned its ship, is causing the Navy to raise the number of sailors on ships to meet the workload.
For example, the review will raise what the Navy considers a fully manned Arleigh Burke-class destroyer from 272 officers and sailors today to 318 in Fiscal Year 2023, Navy Times reported.
The pressure on billets is likely a contributing factor to the delay in manning up ships in accordance with O-FRP.
“We strive in the Pacific Fleet, and I've been meeting this since the middle of last year, to get the ships to 92, 95 at the beginning of the advanced phase of training,” Brown told lawmakers. “Then we keep the ships there through the integrated phase of training and through the deployment. And then we do not allow them to degrade very significantly while they're in sustainment.”
One of the plan’s chief architects is the current commander of Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, who took the PACOM job after turning over Fleet Forces Command to Grady.
Davidson has been a staunch defender of O-FRP since it was rolled out, even as key assumptions of the plan broke down.
In a 2016 interview with USNI News, Davidson defended the plan, saying that the force needed a plan to aim for, even if some of the assumptions would be difficult to achieve.
"The overall thrust of it is, you gotta have a plan. If you have no plan, it’s chaos,” Davidson said. “So you have to start with that kind of scheme in place and then depart from there.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.