The United States Navy has a problem in the Pacific.  As America’s military force in a region that has seen near historic levels of tension recently, including a newly-nuclear North Korea as well as a rapidly expanding Chinese military in the South China Sea, the challenges facing our seaward troops are formidable enough.  Unfortunately, those international tensions aren’t the only obstacles our Navy has been facing. The recent rash of tragic collisions between U.S. Navy ships and commercial vessels has not only given America’s military reputation a black eye, it’s raised some serious questions about how effective the Pacific Fleet might be if war were to break out.

Over the past few months, 17 sailors have lost their lives in embarrassing and avoidable collisions with large commercial vessels in open water.  Two more collisions earlier in the year, one with a fishing boat and another running aground, as well as the crash of a Marine Corps Osprey as it approached the USS Green Bay in early August, compound with stories about international search and rescue efforts for a sailor believed to be overboard (but was actually hiding in the engine room of his ship) and a crashed F/A-18 Hornet that went down as it attempted to make a carrier landing a few months prior, and it’s starting to look like our Navy doesn’t know what it’s doing, despite being the largest, most powerful Naval fleet in the history of mankind.

Damage to the portside is visible as the Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) after its collision with a commercial oil tanker on August 21st

There is no easy solution to what appears to by a systemic problem (or series of problems), but that doesn’t mean there are no solutions; and no matter how complex the issues may be, the Pacific Fleet Commander, Adm. Scott H. Swift makes no excuses for the performance of the ships under his charge, and has resolved to find those elusive solutions as quickly as possible.

This transcends a professional responsibility. I feel a personal responsibility, a personal commitment to get after the challenges we face in the Pacific,” said Swift in a recent interview.  “To be clear, I’m the one that is responsible. I’m the one who has the authorities to fix this. I’m the one to be held accountable for these events and I don’t shirk these responsibilities whatsoever.”

Admiral Swift presides over sixty percent of our nation’s warships, with more than 140,000 sailors under his charge carrying out their duties in locations spanning from America’s West Coast to Australia.  In fact, Swift’s command represents a larger military footprint than could be found in the entire national military of most other countries.  Managing such a formidable force would be no easy job under the best of circumstances, so Swift has proposed the formation of the Naval Surface Group Western Pacific – a 30-50 person committee made up of experts hailing from fields like engineering, safety, maintenance, seamanship and training, all with the clear goal of bringing the Pacific Fleet back to its former glory, and making routine operations safe for our sailors once again.

Swift recently met with leaders from the Navy’s Afloat Training Group Pacific (ATGPAC), as well as staff from Afloat Training Group San Diego and Engineering Assessment Pacific to address these concerns and begin the process of identifying the issues at hand, as well as finding lasting solutions.

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, speaks with the staff at Afloat Training Group Pacific (ATGPAC) on Naval Base San Diego last week

It was great to have face-to-face discussions on actions we can immediately take to improve the training and readiness of our forward-deployed crews and ships,” said Swift. “ATGPAC is central in making meaningful and lasting changes to how we meet our operational commitments safely and successfully.”

One area in clear need of review is training.  Earlier this month, it was revealed that both of the U.S. Navy vessels involved in deadly collisions over the summer had failed to fulfill their training requirements intended to keep such tragedies from occurring.  The USS Fitzgerald had reportedly failed to complete ten out of 10 training requirements in key warfare mission areas, and the USS John S. McCain had lapsed on six of their 10.  To be fair, both ships were sporting training records that were below average for Navy vessels in the Pacific, but that likely serves as little comfort to the families of the sailors that died in their flooded compartments.

We ask the sailors to do an awful lot … and perhaps we’ve asked them to do too much,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran told the House armed services committee at a hearing two weeks ago. “That’s what the comprehensive review will look at.”

Moran went on to say that he had made an error in judgement, assuming that those sailors that were actively deployed to Japan and the surrounding area were the most proficient because they were actively operating in a deployed status.

There is a real imperative to get at this. I’m counting on the collective and individual expertise this team provides. Putting the immediate measures in place now, while taking a deeper dive to get at the more systemic causes soon, will allow us to meet our critical missions more safely and effectively,” Swift told his team of experts.

His strategy is loosely modeled on the methods he employed when initiating reforms in the way the Navy’s amphibious warships trained their crews, maintained vessels and deployed for operations.

Part of that plan is to reduce the operational tempo in the Pacific, to free up time for sailors to get the training they need.  This issue was also identified by the U.S. Government’s Accountability office, who cited a significant increase in the number of vessels America maintains in a forward deployed status in recent years, with very few dedicated training periods allocated in their operational schedules.

We were doing 174 exercises in Seventh Fleet when I came into the job and those become operational demand signals,” said Swift. “So we went through those 174 exercises and a lot of them were kind of nice to do things, but that was trade space to give time back to train sailors and get maintenance done on the ships.”

Sailors look for hot spots in a main space during a damage control training event aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104)

The Accountability Office also cited the frequency of commanders having to consistently record low readiness levels because of failing to complete required maintenance as mandated intervals.

Navy, acknowledging fault in rash of collisions, begins implementing changes in the Pacific

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“We have to fix these problems based on the resources we have,” said Swift. “If there was an increase in ships or an increase in manning, those increases won’t manifest themselves in the fleet for another two or three years. We owe it to those sailors, we owe to their families, we owe it to their shipmates to get after these problems now, now, now.”

Swift went on to caution Americans against focusing too much on a single problem or solution however – explaining that simply getting all sailors the proper training credentials likely wouldn’t be the magic bullet the Navy needs.  Instead, they need to “dig deeper” to address the cultural problems afflicting the Navy.  He hopes his team of experts, which will be led by a seasoned Captain with extensive command experience that will answer directly to Swift, will be able to find the cause, and then solutions to, the issues plaguing his command.

I don’t know exactly what the right answer is, but I know what the wrong answer is,” said Swift. “And the wrong answer is the status quo because the status quo delivered us collectively three collisions and a grounding and 17 lost sailors. And that’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to me. It’s unacceptable to the American public. It’s unacceptable to the Congress, so we have to be active in moving forward.”


Images courtesy of the U.S. Navy