|From this comparison, we can draw several conclusions. First, the number of collisions this year is not significantly higher than in previous years over the past two decades. Second, the collisions themselves are not an indicator of diminished U.S. naval capabilities, which are defined as the ability to wage war and carry out missions. Both the McCain and the Fitzgerald have been removed from service for repairs, but the U.S. has a total of 62 destroyers. Though there are two fewer in theater, many more are available if needed.
It’s also worth noting that collisions have not stopped the Navy from engaging in operations, which have in fact increased over the past 20 years. From 2001 to 2014, the U.S. Navy was engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom as well as three Combined Maritime Forces operations: Combined Task Force 150 (to promote maritime security and counterterrorism), CTF 151 (to counter piracy) and CTF 152 (to support Arabian Gulf security and cooperation). Since 2014, the CTF operations have continued, and Operation Enduring Freedom was replaced by Operation Inherent Resolve. From 2002 to 2017, the U.S. Navy also engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Unified Response and Operation New Dawn.
There is thus no evidence that the U.S. Navy’s capabilities are shrinking. In fact, the accidents occurred in areas that are popular trade routes, not in the open seas. The sheer number of vessels operating in these areas increases the chances of an accident occurring.
Why, then, have these incidents received so much attention? This can be explained a couple of different ways. The Navy, like all institutions and agencies dependent on federal funds, wants more funding. It can use these collisions to make a compelling case that the government should allocate more resources to it. But more important is that American sailors were killed in these incidents. The 2002 and 2005 collisions did not result in any fatalities.
The loss of life is tragic and warrants media coverage, but we should not draw sweeping conclusions about the state of the Navy based on this one factor. It may explain the media, government and military response to this year’s collisions, but it does not make these events geopolitically relevant. If there were a major increase in accidents that forced the Navy to concentrate on critical theaters and thus reduce its global operations, then they would be geopolitically relevant. The comprehensive review of naval readiness triggered by the recent collisions indicates there are some concerns, but they do not rise to a crisis level.
The Navy’s Challenges
Though its ability to conduct war and security operations is still strong, the Navy is not without its challenges. The 2010 Balisle Report, an internal review of the Navy’s surface force from 1999 to 2009, concluded that readiness levels had declined because of a series of systemic changes and problems. A framework introduced in 2001 to manage shipboard personnel resulted in a reduction in personnel requirements. It was called the optimum manning initiative, but it failed to take into consideration the personnel required for maintenance and the loss of personnel due to illness, legal obligations, pregnancy, etc. There were blurred lines of responsibility for material readiness, and the number of related inspections and reviews were cut roughly in half. The time allotted for a ship to go through maintenance was reduced from 15 weeks to nine weeks, and the length of time between board extension visits, which are part of the inspection process, was expanded from 44 months to 60 months.
The review following the recent collisions also indicated some shortcomings in terms of the operational readiness of the entire Navy. The report focused primarily on training and concluded that surface warfare officers, quartermasters and operational specialists do not receive enough training. They are overly dependent on on-the-job training, which is not uniform across the Navy. There is a deficiency in navigation skills due to poor training and a lack of consistency in equipment on each ship. A decrease in classroom education has also caused a general decline in the knowledge base of the surface force, particularly when it comes to understanding and applying international rules on navigation. These findings have raised concerns over readiness levels and the long-term consequences of these issues should they persist.
The Navy’s main strategic challenges relate to two issues: the number of international commitments and the stationing of forces in overseas homeports. From 1998 to 2015, the number of vessels in the U.S. Navy declined by 20 percent, from 333 ships to 271. Fewer ships does not necessarily mean a decline in capabilities. Not all ships are equal; an aircraft carrier provides capabilities a frigate never could. But over this period, the number of ships deployed overseas has remained the same at about 100, and yet, U.S. military commitments have increased. The 5th Fleet is heavily engaged in the Middle East, and the 6th Fleet and the 7th Fleet are permanently based in Europe and in the Western Pacific, respectively.
Deployment times – the number of days a ship spends away from port – have also increased. In 1998, only 4 percent of deployments lasted more than six months, but in 2015, all deployments lasted more than six months. Navy officials today advocate deployment times of six to seven months. This could lead to overextension, which is a problem not only for the Navy but for the U.S. military as a whole.
Current U.S. maritime strategy relies heavily on forward naval presence: the ability to station ships and sailors overseas and maintain naval bases in locations like Guam, Japan, Spain and Bahrain. The Navy measures a ship’s ability to provide forward presence based on the amount of time the ship spends in an area of operation, the amount of time it is available for tasking, and the amount of time it is actually underway (i.e., not in its homeport). Navy officials look at all three criteria together and note that there are intangible benefits to having a ship in an overseas port even if it is not operationally available. The purpose of forward deployment is to have ships available in every corner of the planet at any given time, maximizing the Navy’s ability to project power. It can respond to threats quicker by cutting down transit time to hot zones. This also helps protect shipping lanes, deter conflicts, build regional partnerships and prevent enemies from gaining an upper hand in maritime disputes or sea routes.
There are two commonly cited criticisms of forward deployment: Underway times are too long, and maintenance times are too short. Over the past two decades, the percentage of ships underway has fluctuated. From 1998 to 2009, it increased from 62 percent of the total fleet to 86 percent. But by 2015, it decreased to 75 percent. From 2003 to 2012, forward deployed ships spent on average 42 more days underway than ships that had a homeport in the United States. The 7th Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers spent an average of 116 days underway in 2015 and 162 days in 2016. But underway times don’t provide the full picture; you also need to look at the types of missions a fleet is involved in to determine whether it is in danger of exhaustion. A month of friendly port calls is different from a month of joint exercises, and both are different from a month of actual combat. A more nuanced view of how this time is spent is necessary.
By design, forward deployed ships, particularly cruisers and destroyers, have significantly reduced maintenance and training times compared to ships with homeports in the United States. Of the forward deployed naval forces, the Pacific Command’s 7th Fleet faces the most wear and tear. Forward deployed ships leave their ports more frequently and for shorter deployments. As a result, dedicated training and certification time is often postponed or skipped to deal with more immediate operational concerns. The number of days underway compounds this problem. A surface ship must be certified in 22 different areas: 10 warfare mission areas, like anti-submarine warfare and ballistic missile defense, and 12 basic function areas, like communications and, importantly, mobility and seamanship. The latest Government Accountability Office report on the matter noted that expired training certifications for the Navy’s 11 cruisers and destroyers based in Japan increased from 7 percent in January 2015 to 37 percent in June 2017. Two-thirds of the certifications had been expired for at least five months. None of these ships have all their necessary certifications.