Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, Commander of the U.S. Navy’s surface forces, addressed the troubled year his branch has suffered, and what can be done to resolve some of those issues at the annual Surface Navy Association’s National Symposium this week.  After a slew of ship collisions, two of which involved merchant vessels, claimed the lives of 17 sailors last year, Rowden explained that a safer Navy requires more of two specific things: ships and time.

They need help, and by help, they mean time,” Rowden said of his sailors. “Time to maintain their gear, time to refresh their basic individual and team skills, and time to unwind. Time will only come from two things, or a combination of them: more ships and fewer obligations. It is hard to see things any other way.”

Separate incidents involving the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald colliding with commercial ships in open waters happened within two months of one another, along with other incidents including a running aground and a massive search and rescue operation mounted to find a sailor who turned out to be hiding in his ship’s engine room compounded to make 2017 a troubled year for the U.S. Navy, particularly in the Pacific.

After leaders from a number of the involved vessels were relieved, and even the commander of the entire 7th fleet himself, the Navy now faces the challenge of identifying and correcting the problems that led to this rash of incidents.  In order to expedite that improvement process, the Navy conducted a comprehensive review of fleet operations in the Pacific last year.

I am confident that the leadership team going forward will move out smartly to tackle the problems identified in the comprehensive review,” he said.

Chief among those deficiencies, according to Rowden and many others, is an inappropriately high operational tempo and a serious lack of training.  It was recently uncovered, for instance, that both the Fizgerald and McCain’s crews were seriously out of date in ship operations training requirements at the times of their collisions, an issue leaders have blamed on time commitments established by mission requirements.

According to the review, the Navy currently has the same number of actively deployed ships that it maintained throughout much of the Cold War, despite having a smaller overall fleet.  That means more time deployed for each ship and sailor, and less time for equipment maintenance and necessary training.  It also leads to a higher burnout rate among sailors.  The solution to this problem, according to Rowden, is to expand the number of vessels and sailors in rotation, so each ship and crew are given the appropriate rest, training, and maintenance intervals.

Sailors have even been forced to sleep at different and unusual intervals for extended periods of time due to timeliness requirements, according to the review.  Rowden wants to ensure policies are put in place to allow sailors enough time to sleep between posts – something that isn’t currently being done.

One of the things that we have to do broadly is as we set the routine for these ships, we have to make sure we are taking into account the circadian rhythm these ships are trying to execute.” He said, though he acknowledged that sometimes operational requirements must force shifts in sleep schedules.

“Sometimes it can’t be helped,” Rowden said. “You’ve got helos up and the helo has an emergency: right there, emergency flight quarters. You’ve got to get the team up, you’ve got to get them on the deck. But underway replenishments, some of those other disruptive things, we try to schedule those in such a way that we allow that seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.”

Rowden is slated to retire in the coming weeks, meaning yet another change in command structure amid the push to resolve long-standing issues within the Navy’s surface fleet, but he seemed confident in his prepared remarks that the leadership is in place to resolve this issue and restore the Navy’s reputation as the most powerful sea-going fighting force on the planet.

I’ve been gratified to work closely with the [vice chief of naval operations, Adm. Bill Moran], who is leading the effort to address the deficiencies noted in the review. Some are already fixed. Some will take more effort. And some will require additional time and resources.”

Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy