NORFOLK, Va. — The U.S. Navy has elevated its Naval Safety Center to a two-star Naval Safety Command, increasing the organization’s ability to help the service better understand and mitigate risks it takes during everyday operations.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said at the Feb. 4 standup ceremony that Naval Safety Command will use data to help commands understand risk and mitigate it before mishaps occur.
“The environment we operate in can be the very enemy itself. Conditions at sea can change dramatically and without warning. Heavy weather is a constant danger for mariners, as are the hazards that come with training for the high-end fight and keeping our platforms battle-ready. Importantly, dangers do not just exist underway. Routine maintenance periods and extended availabilities come with a host of challenges. Fire, flooding and other hazards can occur if there is a lack of procedural compliance and oversight, deficiencies in training and material condition, as well as a misunderstanding of requirements,” he said.
“Put simply: There is almost no aspect of naval operations that can be separated from risk. But, risk can be controlled,” he added.
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Gilday highlighted a string of mishaps over the last five years, including the 2020 fire aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard that led to the service decommissioning and eventual scrapping the ship; an additional 14 major fires in the last 12 years; the fuel spill at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii; and multiple fatal training accidents.
“Our investigations have led us to conclude that there’s too much of a variance across the Navy between those commands that do exceptionally well and those commands that struggle and that make mistakes,” he said. “And so I want to put us on a path where we’re better at self-assessing and self-correcting — individually, as sailors, as officers, as commands — to reduce that variance between the very good and the poor so that we’re all good and we bring up the standard.”
Gilday said the Navy learns a lot from investigations following a mishap, but units can also learn from post-mission debriefs that would correct minor mistakes before risk accumulates, leading to an active culture of safety.
That’s where Naval Safety Command comes in.
Rear Adm. Fredrick Luchtman, who took command of the Naval Safety Center in April 2020, told Defense News in an interview after the ceremony that the center previously conducted proactive risk assessments at the unit level — ships, submarines, squadrons and installations — but the command will now also assess the effectiveness of the Navy’s Safety Management System up the chain of command.
“We tend to see that risk by gravity falls down to that commander level, and they’re often held to account for risk that they can’t possibly own. In other words ... they’re forced to mitigate things that they cannot mitigate,” Luchtman said. “They are the supported commander, ultimately, so what we’re trying to do is isolate the risk that should have been identified before it got to their level and mitigate it before it gets to them.”
This means Naval Safety Command will broaden its scope, from conducting assessments on units’ safety compliance to teaching a range of commands how to monitor their own safety and risk levels. This will loop in everyone from operational air wings and strike groups, to the type commands that man and train their community, to the systems commands that develop and maintain platforms and weapons.
Luchtman walked through how Naval Safety Command might interact with leaders at the unit level: Rather than an assessment team meeting with the unit’s safety officer, the team would work directly with the commanding officer. The focus of the assessments is identifying risk, communicating to other stakeholders what the risk is and mitigating it. The unit commander has the accountability in this scenario, so the Naval Safety Command team would help arm the commander with data streams that can paint a continuous picture of how that unit is performing.
“It’s all about units’ own self-assessment of risk,” Luchtman said.
The Naval Safety Center had already created computer models to highlight risk in the fleet based on the experience of a unit’s crew and its operational tempo. “We can isolate where there is risk in the fleet, and we do that with data that doesn’t take sailors having to input data into a system or having to file a report. We pull that data from other sources,” said Luchtman, adding that this forecasting capability will improve as the Navy makes data more widely available for analysis.
Luchtman noted that Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Lescher, who leads the Navy’s Performance to Plan and Naval Sustainment System initiatives, pushes commands to “embrace the red” — to dive into the areas of poor performance, working across and up the chain of command to fix things instead of trying to cover up weak spots.
He said this applies perfectly to Naval Safety Command’s mission, where the goal is to both improve the safety compliance among the poorer-performing units and allow the entire enterprise to manage risk at the most appropriate level, which would empower commanders to do their mission instead of burdening them with excess risk.
Asked if unit commanders had any initial feedback about the upcoming changes, Luchtman said they were cautiously optimistic.
“We’ve not always been successful in walking the walk. We do very well at talking the talk. So this is our opportunity: This is step one, the establishment of the Naval Safety Command. This is proof that naval leadership takes this seriously, and when we talk about identifying risk and communicating risk, that they are absolutely serious,” he said.
The Navy Safety Management System document is still in the works and will be codified soon, Luchtman said, as a high-level document that will inform future safety policy discussions.
Starting this week, the assessment teams will take a strategic pause in their work with the fleet, coming back to the Norfolk office to redesign the assessment process to better look at safety compliance and how to communicate the risks they observe, so the commanders at the right echelons can monitor and mitigate that risk. Luchtman said the new assessment process will be tested over the summer and go into full effect in the fall.
Naval Safety Command will also create new teams in the coming months to handle a separate assessment process for higher-echelon commands. It’s at this level where a catastrophe like the Bonhomme Richard fire might have been prevented.
“If, during that time, we had had an effective Safety Management System where all of that risk and the aggregation of risk had been recognized and communicated, I bet that we could have found somebody accountable for either elements or all of that accumulated risk, and then mitigated that before it ever happened,” Luchtman said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.