The Surface Force's Lost Generation
oldthink is new again
Over at Defense News, Megan Eckstein has your must read to start your week. I hope she does not mind, but I'm going to pull a lot from her article. Read it in full, but there is so much here that validates what we have spent the last two decades on the Front Porch and on Midrats discussing, we need to spend some time to take a deep dive.
Back in 2009 we warned everyone that the Navy's decision to classify INSURV was nothing more than a smokescreen to hide the results of bad decisions on maintaining the readiness of our Navy from the taxpayers and allowed senior leadership to play other games as opposed to their core responsibilities. To say that almost two decades after the Cold War all of a sudden INSURV was classified was just, in a word, insulting.
In 2009, the U.S. Navy faced a readiness crisis.
The cruiser Chosin and destroyer Stout were both deemed unfit for combat operations by the service’s Board of Inspection and Survey, which at the time checked ships’ material conditions every five years.
And they weren’t the only ones. From 2005 through 2009, nearly 14% of surface ships failed their inspections, up dramatically from 6.2% from 2000 to 2004 and 3.5% from 1995 to 1999.
The crisis came after the Navy discontinued several of its Cold War-era organizations focused on maintenance and training in an effort to save money during a time without a significant threat to U.S. security.
No, the "without a significant threat" line is simply BS, an excuse, and for many who knew better ... a lie. We all saw what the People's Republic of China was building. FFS, contemporarily we were a few years in to "The Long Game" series here and we were just riding the wave smarter people set in motion.
"Without?" No, that dog just won't hunt.
This excuse was designed only to cover people who were focused on little more than building personal clout in their present job, while shifting Navy problems in to someone else's PCS cycle to solve. Sure, there was myopia by an ill-informed or just wrong cohort, but for most it was simply, as we say in horse country, "shooting up the horse."
There were some who tried at the time to fix it inside the system, but ultimately came up short.
There were good guys, a lot of them - they just didn't get to 50.1%;
Adm. John Harvey, who led U.S. Fleet Forces Command at the time, helped charter a fleet review panel to determine how the Navy ended up in this position.
In 2010, the fleet review panel’s report, dubbed the Balisle Report after lead author retired Vice Adm. Phil Balisle, shocked the surface fleet with its data on the poor state of ship readiness and crew training. It painted a dire picture of a surface navy that needed to be fixed; otherwise, there was a risk someone could get hurt or killed.
Let's freeze that for a moment. The summer of 2010. That is 12 and a half years ago. Here is what we wrote about this in June and July of 2010. What is that, between three and four WorldWars length of time?
The review, released in 2010, was condemnatory. “The panel is in full agreement that surface force material readiness is in decline. [T]he message is clear: the trend is in the wrong direction.”
Chief among the review’s recommendations was a call for the return of readiness squadrons, which oversaw surface ship maintenance and basic training. The review found that when these squadrons were eliminated in 1995, so too was the fleet’s focus on and accountability for making deployable ships and crews.
So many of the problems we have today can be traced back to the post-Cold War arrogance of the 1990s, Perry's Last Supper, TQL, the triumph of the accountants, layered with the Transformationalist snake oil of the following decade.
In 2010, Harvey pushed to reinstall the readiness squadrons, but he couldn’t rally enough support from the Navy’s manning, engineering and budgeting leaders, among others. The recommendation was never implemented.
But in summer 2017, two separate collisions by Navy ships in the Western Pacific killed 17 sailors. The service once again had to dig out of a ship readiness hole, and a key leader again called for the return of the readiness squadrons. Again, the idea went nowhere.
The lives of 17 Sailors and two WorldWars after 2010 later. "Nowhere" has one hell of a butcher's bill.
“The Balisle Report gave us this tremendous look at a history, really since 2000 or so, of these various decisions that were made in various different parts of the Navy,” Harvey told Defense News. “The collective impact was very, very negative in terms of our ability to keep our ships properly manned, trained and equipped.”
“Bringing back the readiness squadrons,” Harvey said, “if you talked to Adm. Balisle, it was his No. 1 recommendation to do. And I agreed with that.”
Still, Harvey added, the urgency to make this major change was “overcome by other events at that time.”
"Other events..." indeed; as we documented at the time linked to above.
The U.S. Navy has not made significant progress toward growing its fleet size above 300 ships. The FY23 National Defense Authorization Act allows the service to shed 12 of the 24 ships it proposed retiring. Even with a slower retirement rate and marginally higher shipbuilding and construction funding from Congress, it will prove difficult for the Navy to grow the fleet toward 355 ships. That was the last publicly stated force structure objective, back in 2016; since then, the Navy has not officially stated a revised target. (Source: Doug Berenson/Oliver Wyman)
It is a hard sell to beg for more ships when from a material condition to a maintenance support perspective we seem to have trouble taking care of what the taxpayers have already bought us by borrowing money in the name of children yet unborn.
Kitchener said there are two key differences this time around: an advanced adversary in China that’s forcing the Navy to think about its near-term readiness to fight; and data analytics and modeling that prove the surface groups will be worth the investment.
I'm sorry, but bullsh1t.
The threat from the PRC was as well known in 2016 as it is now. I will add to this that no one has confidence on the "analytics and modeling" coming from the Navy.
The Age of Transformationalism, gutting of maintenance, and the vaporware that was "optimal manning" have blown all credibility in the Navy's "muh metrics" claims. Kitchener's numbers may very well be perfect, but no one has any reason to believe any of them from Main St. to Congress. Sorry, but institutionally we blew that credibility over the last two decades and it will take a long time to get it back.
We would make much better headway by simply saying, "For most of this century we blew it. We were wrong. We are trying to do better."
Some, like Harvey, gave the Navy a window to save itself a dozen+ years ago and we didn't take advantage of it.
We have years of work to do ... but Step-1 here is to admit our mistakes. Until we do that, everyone can very reasonably assume we will do it again.
Data is central to Kitchener’s new effort. He told Defense News in an interview that various efforts have identified the ways to improve ship maintenance: building up a larger inventory of select spare parts, adding capacity in key shops and departments that are potential chokepoints, increasing training and growing expertise in certain technical areas, and more.
Ahh...the "Just in Time - -TQL" hangover. What takes one year to destroy, takes five years to rebuild. All that Kitchener is saying is not new. It is, just like readiness squadrons, returning to the last baseline that worked.
Are we in the process of a "baseline reset?" That would be a good thing.
Take Destroyer Squadron 9, for example, located in Everett, Washington. Its ships are scattered geographically: one located in Everett, five in San Diego and two in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
I'll let you do a distance and time zone review of that for yourself. Norfolk-Mayport was hard enough.
There are reasons this exists, but none of them are satisfactory when an overall net cost is considered.
Kitchener said he’s awaiting the final recommendations of his working group this summer, but expects each fleet concentration area to have a single surface group responsible for maintaining and training all surface ships, including cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and amphibious warships, based in those cities. These home ports include San Diego; Norfolk, Virginia; Mayport, Florida; Everett; Pearl Harbor; Yokosuka, Japan; Manama, Bahrain; and Rota, Spain.
I am trying to hard not to just snark old-school...but really - we have reached the point that giving commanders a chance to "walk the pier" without getting on an aircraft is something "new."
Instead of gratuitous snark, have a meme.
I mean, this is how it should be ... and seems to be heading back in the correct direction. It should be applauded.
Each surface group would devote itself entirely to readiness. ... in the case of a maintenance casualty, the surface group back home would work to find the quickest solution, allowing the destroyer or amphibious squadron staff to continue focusing on operations.
“This is oversight and responsibility and accountability throughout the entire” readiness cycle, Kitchener said. “The idea is, this exists in the fleet concentration area, it’s got a cadre of people that are constantly on our ships assessing, understanding what the problems are; we’re pulling the trend analysis here at the headquarters, giving them focus areas. It’s a very active, not just some sort of bureaucratic, organization.”
For those who were JOSs in the 90s, I guess a bureaucratic system focused on maintenance excellence is new and radical, but it has a track record. This is simply good stuff. We tried everything else and failed, why not try what worked?
Also, can we also make progress in the "Syllabels Reduction Act of 2023?" Can we simply go back to calling things "bases" as opposed to "Fleet Concentration Areas?"
2 syllables and one word > 8 syllabels and three words.
As there is a lot of ruin in a nation, there was a lot in institutional capital previous generations built up prior to the 1990s that could be drawn on to pay for bad decisions, but that account is pretty much drawn down to almost nothing.
Talk to anyone on The Hill ... it's gone.
The Navy has observed improvements in maintenance performance, but is also facing new setbacks as labor and supply chain challenges across the manufacturing sector continue to take a toll on the ship repair industry.
Rear Adm. Bill Greene, the fleet maintenance officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said in the fall that only 36% of surface ships are expected to complete maintenance availabilities on time in fiscal 2022, down from 44% in fiscal 2021.
This duality is also reflected in the most recent Board of Inspection and Survey report, which noted surface ships are seeing higher overall readiness scores than the six-year average, but have more functional areas deemed “degraded” than the six-year average, using a scoring method of satisfactory, degraded or unsatisfactory.
Time for a reminder ... we need to make INSURV publicly available again. Less accountability gave us less readiness, and as a result our nation and its Navy is less secure.
What vexes the Navy, Kitchener said, is variance in maintenance performance: ... Kitchener outlined a three-step process to address this. The first step was already done under Performance to Plan ... P2P has highlighted the need to prioritize people or materials for a certain ship availability, and then coordinate activities across multiple shops at a shipyard to get a specific repair done on time.
The second step is allowing surface groups to devote their full attention to implementing the actions identified through P2P in hopes of achieving better on-time maintenance rates.
The third step, on which Kitchener said he’d offer more details soon, is creating a surface response plan that prioritizes certain ships’ readiness over others.
If a contingency arose and a combatant commander needed three destroyers, the three ships at the top of the list would be called upon to deploy on short notice. Those ships higher up on the list would be expected to stay in a peak-readiness state, and the maintenance and supply communities would act accordingly. Ships lower on the list and less likely to be called upon for unexpected tasking may be in a lower readiness condition if the fleet is short on personnel or materials, for example.
For those outside the Minotaur maze that is the US Navy's decision making, you are allowed to ask, "Why didn't we do this already?"
I know. I know.
So, what will this look like?
Kitchener said the future SURFGRU Southeast, currently named Naval Surface Squadron 14, is the “most robust” organization and has served as a model for the working group, which determined how many supply specialists, logistics personnel, diesel engine (versus gas turbine) experts, and so on, were needed to keep ships properly ready.
Kitchener said the Mayport group has 105 billets for a squadron that tends to about 10 destroyers — compared to just 10 personnel tending to nine destroyers and cruisers in Everett. The exact number of billets in each group would depend on the number of ships at a particular port, but Kitchener said the groups would more closely resemble the Mayport squadron than the Everett unit.
Mayport ... the best Sea & Anchor Detail in the Navy.
The Navy was skipping training and maintenance to achieve unsustainable levels of at-sea presence, and it was down about 12,000 sailors thanks to the individual augmentee program that sent personnel to support joint operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sequestration cuts to the federal budget in 2012 further diminished readiness, Harvey explained.
No one said, "No." No one defended our Sailors or our Navy. We let the COCOMs abuse the running room they made for themselves as a result of Goldwater-Nichols and the whole accretions encumbered COCOM structure and Cult of the Joint that came with it.
Yes, I am beating that horse and will continue to beat it until we get something fit for the 21st Century.
It wasn't something that happened to our Navy. No, it was something we allowed to happen to our Navy. Heck, during some of the worst of it, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a USN 4-star.
“It was going to take more billets, more people. … And there just was not a clean, widespread agreement among everybody who had to agree that this was the right way to go,” Harvey said. “In the greater scheme of things and what was going on, it just never rose to the level where it had a critical mass of leadership who all said: ‘Yes.’ ”
No, plenty of billets were found for other "priorities and distractions" - they were just more important than manning, training, maintaining, and equipping a fleet to fight and win. As I've offered for years, give me the top-cover and the manning documents ashore, and I'll find your billets. Just let me recode and reassign as needed. If I need more, I'll look at afloat and DC staff. They're there - you just have to be ready to upset a different group of people who don't add warfighting value anyway.
In the end, this is the cost of distraction and ill-focus;
Retired Vice Adm. Rich Brown, who investigated one of the two fatal ship collisions in 2017 and then took command of Naval Surface Forces in 2018, resurrected the push to bring back readiness squadrons. He said that, by 2017, virtually all Balisle’s recommendations were implemented — with the readiness squadrons being the major exception.
Brown told Defense News a robust readiness squadron likely would have prevented the fatal collisions involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain.
In summary, yep.
The existing structure asks destroyer squadrons to oversee the maintenance and certification of ships and serve as the sea combat commander for a carrier strike group. If the squadron needs a ship to fulfill a warfighting requirement, it creates a conflict of interest that can put maintenance and training needs at risk.
Brown said this construct “failed, and we recognized that it was failing, and so that’s why the Balisle Report said, and later I said, we’ve got to do this. And we just didn’t do it.”
He called the 1980s readiness squadrons “a proven model” that restored the Navy from having a hollow fleet in the 1970s to having a robust surface force by the 1980s.
There it is again; baseline reset.
A future “high-end fight requires so much dedicated concentration and focus that we need these additional commands. They’re going to come at a cost — it’s going to come at a huge manpower cost, and the Navy’s got to buy that manpower because it’s the right thing to do for our carrier strike groups,” Brown said.
Yes, buy manpower ... but also repurpose existing bloat ashore. Yes, recoding BA/NMP is a pain - but it can be done. Yes, rice bowls and rent seekers will be upset. All it needs to be is a senior leadership priority. And at the end of the day, shouldn't the ability to fight and win at sea be number 1?
We cannot change the past, but we must acknowledge, name, and recognize past errors so that they won't be repeated.
There is some good stuff going on as outlined in Megan's reporting, and we should see more in this direction, but no more happy talk. No more multi-syllabic bullsh1t bingo lingo. No more petty distractions.
There are a lot of smart, good people in important positions who want to do great things. They just need the right higher direction and guidance to execute.