ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters
There are benefits and drawbacks to being a veteran who covers his old service. Being institutionalized, even to a lesser degree, is both.
On the drawback side, for example, I miss things that an outsider might catch as being strange or out of whack just because that’s the way it has always been. On the benefits side – and this especially applies since I got out as a junior sailor – I was held to a high standard the way all sailors are. If you are assigned a maintenance check and you don’t do it correctly, or you cut corners, or you sign it off without having actually performed it, that’s a bad thing. That’s gundecking and it has gotten people killed.
The benefit is because I was held to a high standard, I hold the institution to the same standard it held me to. My pique at the sorry state of maintenance is partly rooted in the feeling that it doesn’t jive with the values I was taught by this organization. I recognize that in the real world leaders must make decisions about spending on modernization vs spending on maintenance when times are tight. But that doesn’t change that it is clearly not OK to send ships out to sea with significant equipment degradations. It feels vaguely like gundecking on a large scale.
The good news is I’m not the only one who feels that way. The surface Navy has taken its share of lumps in the maintenance budget over the years, and I’ve had discussions with each of the last four commanders of Naval Surface Forces Pacific about maintenance. None of them has ever said anything but that it is a continuing challenge.
But I had an interesting conversation this week about this with current SURFPAC boss Vice Adm. Rich Brown, and that’s the subject of tonight’s Drift.
Let’s do it.
I almost never get calls from admirals out of the blue who want to talk, but it happened this week and it goes back to a story I wrote early on in Brown’s tenure as SURFPAC.
I got an email from a fake Gmail account right after he took over in late 2017 and it contained Brown’s staff goals. The main, overarching goal was to deploy all ships manned to a high standard, fully certified and free of all reported casualties (or CASREPs). The last part, deploying CASREP free, was pointed out to me as being particularly unreasonable by my anonymous tipster.
The email from what SURFPAC thought must have been from either a staffer or a friend of a staffer who had received it (In this case, I honestly have no clue who sent it to me) kind of ticked Brown off. There was a good chance whoever sent it to me was on his staff throwing shade at his staff goals in the media, so I imagine that would be irksome. (I want to clarify here that I will gladly read any unclassified documents you wish to send me and encourage you to do so. My email is at the bottom.)
Ships should be CASREP free when they deploy, but in recent years as money has run tight, ships have had to triage what needs to be fixed to fulfill the assigned missions, and what can be taken offline for a later date. The most egregious example I’ve come across of this was the ill-fated 2014 deployment by the cruiser Cowpens, which was in dire need of extensive repairs. That cruise became famous for a lot of bad reasons, but while salacious details took the forefront, the real scandal was the condition of the ship when she was deployed.
When she returned, the flight deck was found to be unsafe, the firefighting systems were in disrepair and the manning was atrocious. A former senior officer of the ship told me in a conversation that quite simply: “We're weren't ready for an operational deployment. Get underway, pull into ports, show the flag — we could do that. But we weren't ready to be operational.”
The stories the crew told me about that ship were infuriating, and the fact was that while the cruisers were in particularly bad condition, other ships were in the same basic condition, from what I was being told.
(It should be noted that the admiral who was in charge of SURFPAC at the time, Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, was hurried out the door for speaking out about the state of maintenance on his ships and the lack of funding to fix it.)
So, I told you that story to tell you this one. I got a call from Brown’s public affairs officer telling me the Admiral wanted to talk to me. Here’s how the conversation went:
“Do you remember about a year-and-half ago when I took over, I put out my staff goals and somebody sent you an email with that slide and said, ‘No way?’ Well, the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group just landed on the moon,” Brown said.
Inspired by President Kennedy’s moon shot, Brown said he set the goal of deploying CASREP free because he wanted to aim for something hard and motivate people to get it done.
“Out of those staff goals… the moonshot – the big, hairy, audacious goal – was deploying CASREP-free one. I got to [manned] and fully certified within the first strike group that we deployed, but we just deployed the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, all three ships, CASREP free. And I had to give you a call, because whoever that knucklehead was who made up that fake address was wrong.”
Now it’s not all perfect news on the CASREP front, Brown said, but it’s getting better. Other individual ships have deployed CASREP free, but others have deployed with CASREPs.
“We’ve deployed a number of ships with one or two CASREPs that I made the determination that we’d defer to the next maintenance availability because it didn’t have any warfighting impact and it wasn’t worth the cost to try to go fix it. But this was the first strike group we’ve deployed CASREP free and I thought it was worth the phone call.”
That is worth the old BZ in my book. I’m glad to hear progress is being made on this front. A few notes of caution: There are still serious issues. In an earlier phone call – You’ll see that story next week – Brown said there are still major issues. Cannibalization of parts in the surface fleet is a problem. Taking parts off a ship coming back from deployment and putting them on a ship going out to clear CASREPs is an effective way of maintaining presence with working ships. It does little for you if you need to surge for a major contingency. That’s a problem the Surface Fleet still needs to work through.
The other issues, well I detailed them at length in this issue of The Drift right here: Navy maintenance is a dumpster fire: The Drift, Vol. XXIV.
Now let’s Hotwash.