Navy ships at sea ‘de­spite short­fall’

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON: Af­ter a string of deadly ac­ci­dents in the western Pacific, a top ad­mi­ral ac­knowl­edged on Thurs­day that the Navy had know­ingly op­er­ated war­ships there de­spite a grow­ing num­ber of ma­jor train­ing and main­te­nance short­falls — all to meet in­creas­ing op­er­a­tional de­mands.

An un­usual hear­ing of two House armed ser­vices sub­com­mit­tees of­fered no new in­for­ma­tion about what caused four Navy mishaps in the western Pacific this year, in­clud­ing two fa­tal col­li­sions be­tween Navy de­stroy­ers and for­eign cargo ships that left 17 sailors dead. Those ac­ci­dents re­main un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

But the hear­ing painted a dis­turb­ing por­trait of fa­tigued crews and com­man­ders on a shrink­ing over­seas fleet sad­dled with con­stant de­ploy­ments — in­clud­ing con­fronting an ex­pan­sion­ist Chi­nese mil­i­tary and keep­ing vigil on a nu­clear sabre-rat­tling North Korea — with lit­tle time left to train or to re­pair aging ships.

“The Navy is caught be­tween un­re­lent­ing de­mands and a short­age of ships,” John Pendle­ton, a di­rec­tor of the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, the in­ves­tiga­tive arm of Congress, told law­mak­ers. The of­fice has chron­i­cled the Navy’s woes in sev­eral re­cent re­ports.

Con­trite Navy of­fi­cials con­ceded that they had ac­cepted in­creas­ing risks with un­cer­ti­fied ships and crews, de­spite re­peated warn­ings from con­gres­sional watch­dogs and the Navy’s own ex­perts.

In case af­ter case, Navy ship com­man­ders and their chains of com­mand ap­proved waivers to ex­pir­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tions of stan­dards so long as tem­po­rary steps were put in place to mit­i­gate the risks.

“We have al­lowed stan­dards to drop as the num­ber of cer­ti­fi­ca­tions has grown,” said Adm Wil­liam Mo­ran, the vice-chief of naval op­er­a­tions, re­fer­ring to waivers of re­quired tests cer­ti­fy­ing Navy crews and ships had met cer­tain stan­dards, such as sea­man­ship.

As of June, 37% of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for the crews of cruis­ers and de­stroy­ers based at the 7th Fleet in Yoko­suka, Ja­pan, had ex­pired, Mr Pendle­ton said.

That was more than a five­fold in­crease in the per­cent­age of ex­pired cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for the crews of those ships since a Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port in May 2015, he said.

Thurs­day’s hear­ing marked the first time that Navy of­fi­cials pub­licly re­sponded to Congress since the de­stroyer John S McCain col­lided last month with an oil tanker off the coast of Sin­ga­pore, killing 10 sailors.

In June, the de­stroyer Fitzger­ald col­lided with a cargo ship off Ja­pan. Seven sailors died i n their flooded berthing com­part­ments.

Af­ter the McCain crash, the Navy relieved the com­man­der of the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm Joseph Au­coin; di­rected all 277 Navy ships world­wide to sus­pend op­er­a­tions for a day or two to ex­am­ine ba­sic sea­man­ship and team­work; and or­dered a com­pre­hen­sive re­view of fleet op­er­a­tions, train­ing and man­ning to be com­pleted within 60 days.

Law­mak­ers, how­ever, seemed un­sat­is­fied that the Navy was tak­ing enough im­me­di­ate mea­sures to pre­vent an­other ac­ci­dent, and de­manded to know why the Navy did not pause its op­er­a­tions af­ter the Fitzger­ald crash.

“It should have,” Adm Mo­ran said. Much of the hear­ing fo­cused on the dif­fer­ences be­tween Navy ships based in the United States and those over­seas.

Since 2006, the Navy has dou­bled the num­ber of ships based abroad. That al­lows the Navy to re­spond quickly in a cri­sis with a for­mi­da­ble num­ber of com­bat­ant ships and air­craft.

The 7th Fleet is the Navy’s big­gest and busiest, with 20,000 sailors and 50 to 70 ves­sels. Even as the Navy has shrunk, its mis­sions have grown to meet de­mands in a re­gion that has be­come in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble.

In the past two decades, the num­ber of Navy ships has de­creased about 20%, though the time they are de­ployed has re­mained the same, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port by the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Bud­getary As­sess­ments, a Wash­ing­ton re­search group funded by the De­fense Depart­ment.

The in­creased bur­den has fallen dis­pro­por­tion­ately on the 7th Fleet.

That tempo, Adm Mo­ran ac­knowl­edged on Thurs­day, has frayed readi­ness. Gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tors have drawn sim­i­lar con­clu­sions, warn­ing that the mis­sion pace was leav­ing crews un­pre­pared.

Mr Pendle­ton noted that a 2015 study by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice found that the high de­mands of Navy fleets based over­seas, like the 7th in Ja­pan, af­fect main­te­nance and train­ing.

AP

In this June 17 file photo, a Ja­pan Coast Guard ship helps the dam­aged USS Fitzger­ald nav­i­gate af­ter a crash off Yoko­suka.

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