WASHINGTON – The two U.S. Navy destroyers that fatally collided with commercial ships in East Asia this year were both lacking necessary training certifications, a U.S. government watchdog representative said during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
“They did have missing certifications, as did most ships [based in Japan],” John Pendleton, the director of defense force structure and readiness issues for the Government Accountability Office, testified at House Armed Services Committee hearing.
The missing training certifications, which are received after a crew proves it can perform all necessary missions, could be a clue as to how the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald were involved in deadly accidents that experts say could have been easily avoided.
Both ships collided with commercial vessels at least several times their size while conducting routine operations in the Asia Pacific region, causing severe damage and flooding and the deaths of U.S. sailors.
The accidents occurred within 65 days of each other, with the Fitzgerald colliding with a Philippines-flagged container ship on June 18 and the McCain colliding with a Liberian-flagged oil tanker on August 21.
Pendleton revealed in his testimony during the hearing that, as of June, 37 percent of warfare certifications for cruiser and destroyer crews based in Japan had expired, a fivefold increase in two years, with over two-thirds of those expired for five or more months. Eight of the 11 ships based there had expired certification for seamanship.
Navy officials who were called to testify alongside Pendleton explained that if ships do not have their full certifications, they submit a risk mitigation plan and a request to deploy anyway and it is not uncommon to do so in that region, since there was a shortfall in personnel who could certify ships in the region, as well as conflicting schedules.
“The trend of the number that we’re asking for waivers is increasing at an alarming rate,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran admitted.
However, Pendleton and Navy officials who testified agreed that the missing certifications were symptoms of a larger problem: ever increasing demands on the Navy’s fleet, particularly in the Asia Pacific, coupled with a force that’s the smallest since 1916.
While the number of ships has shrunk from more than 600 in the 1990s to 277 today, the number of ships required to be deployed remains the same, at about 100 according to Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
That requirement means that more ships have forgone needed maintenance, requiring more time back in a shipyard when they do undergo maintenance, further shrinking the number of available ships to deploy, and forcing other ships to deploy more and longer, with less time training.
To keep up with an aggressive deployment schedule, sailors assigned to ships based in Japan do not have dedicated training time, but instead learn on the job, according to Pendleton and Navy officials.
While the Navy is still reviewing exactly what happened to cause the two fatal accidents and whether there is a broad systemic problem in the force with how the Navy trains and deploys sailors, a growing consensus of experts and lawmakers say demands have to be reduced, or more ships built to meet the demands.
“I don’t know what specifically caused the accidents, but I do know the Navy is caught between unrelenting operational demand and a limited supply of ships,” Pendleton said. “The Navy’s been warning for some time, that they have been keeping a pace that is unsustainable. Our work has confirmed the difficulty, and our reports have shown it.”
Pendleton said there is also risk in how the Navy is managing the demands on it, particularly in the Asia Pacific, where preserving presence over readiness.
“Their aggressive deployment schedule gave the Navy more presence, it’s true, but it came at cost, including detrimental effects on ship readiness,” he said. “At this point, I think the Navy’s treading water in terms of readiness.”
North Korea’s continuous antics have kept the U.S. and its allies on alert, reduced demands on the Navy in the Asia Pacific is not likely anytime soon. Moran said the Navy has already made plans to bring the force back up to full speed in the Asia Pacific region as soon as possible.
Increasing the number of ships is not a quick solution, either. The U.S. Navy has a goal of reaching 355 ships just to meet the minimum requirements of what the Pentagon wants it to do. President Trump has vowed to build a 350-ship Navy.
“I remain convinced that one of the long-term fixes of this problem is to increase the overall force structure and build the Navy that our nation needs. A larger fleet would allow the Navy to place less strain on each available ship; which would reduce the chance that any sailor is placed in a high-risk environment,” Wittman said.
“In the short term, I support the need to adequately fund training and most importantly, provide the fleet the time it needs to complete required maintenance and training,” he said.
The top Democrat on the subcommittee agreed. “One obvious response to this high operational tempo is to grow our fleet and shorten the backlog of repair and maintenance for the existing fleet to take the pressure off the heel to toe operations of our forward deployed ships in places like Yokosuka, Japan, and Rota, Spain,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) said.
Naval expert and retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix estimates that to get 355 ships in ten years, Congress would have to spend an extra $26 billion more every year on the Navy than it does now at $168 billion.
“The driving factor is that we have [a] requirement to maintain 85 to 100 ships at sea … so that puts a strain – that’s a demand signal, and when you have a 277-ship fleet, then you’re drawing from less and less,” said Hendrix, the director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“I’m a fiscal conservative as much as anyone, but the price of a war is going to be much more expensive than trying to maintain the peace,” he said.
One remedy the Navy is considering is reactivating ships placed in ready reserve. Hendrix said there are about 11 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates built in the 1970s and early 1980s that could be reactivated.
“I think we could probably get eight of them, I think eight of them are sufficient material condition, we could make an investment and bring them back,” he said.
Another option would be to extend the lives of ships scheduled to decommission.
“We have about 49 ships that are scheduled to decommission over the next five to eight years. We could extend the lives of some of those by making investments to extend their lives from 30 to 35 or 35 to 40, that also helps us get the ship numbers up, retain more ships in the fleet, that takes some slack off the ships as well,” he said.
One hurdle to spending more money is that lawmakers are still stuck under budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, commonly known as “sequestration,” that aim to slash $500 billion from the Pentagon’s budget through 2021, on top of about $487 billion in voluntary cuts over that same time.
Trump has vowed to permanently get rid of sequestration, but it would require the passing of a new law by Congress and likely tax and spending reform.
When asked during the hearing if sequestration was the problem with the Navy’s shortfalls in training and maintenance, Moran responded: “That is absolutely the case.”
He also said nine consecutive short-term government funding measures known as continuing resolutions, in lieu of regular, on-time defense budgets, has created budget uncertainty and worsened the Navy’s readiness of its forces to operate.
“And we’re about to hit another one,” he said. “[Those] budget uncertainties drive uncertainty into schedules, maintenance, our private yards, public yards this is an issue across the board. The most useful thing we could have out of Congress right now in terms of addressing our readiness concerns is stability in the budget.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) blamed the Obama administration for ignoring the military’s warnings of readiness shortfalls under the budget caps.
“The leadership of the Department in the last administration denied we had a readiness problem. They said we were just making it up,” he said.
But some experts say more money is not the solution.
Katherine Blakeley, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said Congress has appropriated increasingly more money for readiness since 2009.
“If you look at those funding levels between 2009 and 2017, Congress has actually appropriated a smooth, upward line,” she told Defense News earlier this week. And, she added, “From a training perspective it doesn’t look like there is a real pile of missing money for Navy sailors, Navy pilots, and flight-support crew.”
She also said budget caps do not appear to be the problem since funding levels have actually been higher than former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had anticipated before the caps.
“That says to me it needs more inquiry, and it’s not a question of there being no money,” she said. “Maybe the Navy is wrong in their estimation of how much money is needed, but Congress has consistently been appropriating more.”
More answers are expected after the Navy completes its 60-day review of whether the Navy is appropriately manning, training and equipping its fleet, particularly its forces based in Japan. But for now, leaders suspect they’ve been trying to do too much in the face of shrinking resources.
“We aren’t big enough to do everything we’re tasked to do,” Moran said. “Our culture is we’re going to get it done because that’s what the Navy is all about, and sometimes our culture works against us.”
“We’ve asked the sailors to do an awful lot. Perhaps we’ve asked them to do too much. That’s what the comprehensive review will look at.”