24 Sep 2017

Why the US Navy Keeps Running into Merchant Ships


Homeland Security interviews an anonymous captain.

Captain F:
[N]ow we had a situation where you had decommissioned a large portion of the fleet. We are down close to 255 ships or so the last I looked, and we are still heading downward. On top of that, you were asking those ships we had to do jobs previously done by larger, better-armed and better-manned vessels.

It did not take me long after I took command of Fleet Training Center Norfolk in ‘98 to realize that I was supposedly training the chiefs and first-class petty officers of the new ships and that I would soon be expected to train the lower rank 2nd class petty officers and below. In other words, we should have been taking into account the fact that each of those men was going to have to have the knowledge, skills and abilities of about six people in order to do their jobs. The DDX was originally meant to be manned by 75 people versus the 250 to 350 men found on either the DDG51s, Spruance cans or Tico cruisers.

The LCS was even worse. They were expected to come into the fleet with a minimally manned ship of under 50.

IM: There was a large drawdown in the ‘90s. Many military bases closed. This continued until 2000?

Captain F: After all that was going on in the ‘90s, we also had a mandate to transform the Navy; build a better tooth-to-tail ratio and cut the personnel budgets. Think about it: if you can’t cut capital infrastructure such as ships, then the only place to look is manning.

From my perspective in the training world, that meant we had to figure out how to cut the costs of training by doing it smarter and with technology. Up until then, all Navy schools delivered training the same way – blue smock, pointer and blackboards.

The personnel command was meant to transform the way we assigned people to ships, considering the skills they had, to ensure that the right folks were assigned. That is how and why Task Force Excel came into being in 2000. Donald Rumsfeld came in as Secretary of Defense and instituted large transformation efforts.

From the Navy perspective, the CNO was Vern Clark and he fully supported the transformation efforts. We did a lot of good work and instituted a lot of change.

But as in all organizations, resistance to change can be powerful. In my opinion, to successfully get anything established, you should have at least seven years. We had that barely before the CNO retired, and a new one took his place and the resistance built back up.

IM: So it’s a leadership issue?

Captain F: What gave out was leadership. The admirals did not put their careers on the line and object about anything. They rolled over to save themselves. That is the big picture. From a more localized perspective, the direct in-line people, COs, XOs and MCPOs, also rolled over.

There is no way on my ships that would have happened. We always had direct leadership. Leadership that was there, present and capable. I am willing to bet that those ships involved in incidents with merchants had all their sexual orientation, transgender training, and environmental training all completed at the expense of the safety and operational training.

If you put the emphasis on social issues, you get a social force. If you put it on operational issues, you get an operational force.

The mistakes I see in the latest incidents – I have read the actual reports on the Fitzgerald – were so simple and basic it takes your breath away. Technology can never replace humans in totality, especially when the law of gross tonnage applies.

As CO, I would have been on the bridge in both those incidents. We would have had highly qualified officers and petty officers on watch.

So if you can follow my logic here is what I conclude. There was a confluence of leadership failures:

First, there was a failure by the nation and particularly the executive branch of the government to recognize that by using the armed forces as a social change agent, as well as denying them the tools (forces) to do the job, will always cause the forces to break. We are at the breaking point and it shows.

Second, there was a failure in naval leadership writ large from the time we tried to transform the forces to meet the threat to today. Not enough senior leadership was stepping forward, ready to sacrifice themselves, so our sailors would not be.

In addition, it has been obvious to me that SECNAV Mabus was able to transform naval leadership in a way to conform to his world view; [that he] fired or relieved those who did not conform to his views and promoted those that did. I think the top leadership is pretty rotten, although I am sure there is “good wood” in there somewhere.

Third, the direct chain of command must have been weak – 7th Fleet down through the commodores of the squadrons – or these ships would not be having these problems. Either the standards are too low or they are worrying about other things. I suspect they are worrying about other things, such as the social experimentation going on and how they get through so they can continue to survive themselves.

Fourth, the ship climate and command structures were obviously out of whack. COs don’t get to sleep in in heavy shipping waters, [that’s] just a fact.

Fifth, while it might be convenient or popular to string some kind of conspiracy theory, the mistakes made were all simple things: basic ship handling, navigation and seamanship stuff. Destroyers do not get run down by merchants; they are faster and much more maneuverable. No, they were not hacked; they were not run down on purpose. They just were asleep at the wheel.

Sixth, I am surprised and will continue to be surprised if some of these folks in leadership positions are not court-martialed. There is a good case for manslaughter in my mind.

And lastly, we need to truly transform the services, not from a social viewpoint but rather from a warfighting viewpoint. Capabilities are available for us to reduce crew manning and use distributed systems, but like anything [else], we have to be serious about doing it. Perhaps that will be the one good thing coming out of all of this.

The last thing I will say is that the Navy has a very difficult issue transforming. Since it is capital-heavy, it needs to do more to bring down shipbuilding costs, while at the same time work assiduously to transform our personnel into distributed nodes with authority, that is transforming the personnel force. That is a tall order and it takes people not only with leadership skills but also imagination and vision, which is a commodity in short supply.


2 Feedbacks on "Why the US Navy Keeps Running into Merchant Ships"


Good God, this idiot is still talking about “transforming”. That is how we got to where we are today with a fleet of utterly worthless DDX and LCS and insufficient trained manpower to man them at even their ridiculously low levels. Naturally, OPNAV has decided that the fix in 7th Fleet is to BUILD ANOTHER ADMIRAL STAFF and put it in charge of ‘training’ the handful of sailors left. All the experienced sailors get sucked onto admiral’s staffs and staffs of things like Fleet and Afloat Training Group staffs which means they’re carved off the ships.
With 2 of 11 7th Fleet ships out of commission for years do you suppose that boob COMPACFLT has reduced the requirements on the ships remaining or are they surging more undertrained ships out of 3rd Fleet to cover the missions of the missing ships or are they just going to require the 9 remaining to perform all the tasks that had been allotted to 11 ships? I think they will cut none of the requirements, lengthen deployments, slash maintenance availabilities, and drive even more of the best sailors out of the navy early.

It’s what they do.

bob sykes

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the pace of operations of the Pacific fleet is much higher than that of home-based fleets and that a great deal of deferred maintenance has accrued. The training schools have also been largely abandoned and sailors and officers are expected to learn by on the job experience. Hence a largely toothless navy.

The blog In from the Cold (now apparently defunct) ran a number of posts on our land-based missile and aircraft nuclear deterrent. That force is riddled with incompetence and dishonesty, and the weapons themselves are obsolete. The reliability of the men and weapons is questionable.

We are already mired in a dozen wars or so (Somalia for 25 years), and we could become embroiled in shooting wars in Korea, Iran and Ukraine. We are appallingly over-extended, and a major cutback in commitments is in order.

Our annual budget deficit is about equal to our defense budget. Moreover, it is expected that in the early to mid 2020’s the interest payment itself will equal our defense budget.

Add to that that over the same period China’s total economy is projected to become 50% larger than ours. Its manufacturing sector is already much larger and much more diverse than our own.

This is a recipe for a stunning, world-historic military defeat, possibly even entailing loss of territory.

I have no idea what to do. Add the rapidly increasing racial tensions in this country, and the future is truely grim.


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