Surface warfare reforms designed to improve sailor skills and manage ship demand are impacting the fleet five years after two deadly collisions in the Western Pacific forced the Navy to revamp how the service trains the fleet of surface.
Multiple investigations and criminal prosecutions have revealed that fundamental flaws in seamanship and ship handling led to the early morning collision of June 17, 2017 between the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and ACX Crystal off Japan. Seven sailors died.
Two months later, a misunderstanding over a newly installed throttle control system led to the USS John McCain (DDG-56) drifting from a ship separation device outside Singapore and colliding with a merchant tanker Alnic™. Ten sailors died.
Two subsequent Navy reviews of fatal collisions – and two other cruiser incidents in 2017 – revealed systemic problems in basic ship handling and navigation in the surface force, with crews working too much and sleeping too much. little to meet an incessant demand for forces.
The reviews generated a list of more than 100 recommendations for improving training and procedures, resulting in a restructuring of the career path for surface warfare officers and a Navy pledge in Congress to have minimum manning aboard surface ships.
Five years after the collision of Fitzgerald and Crystal, the surface community is still working on the recommendations and needs to see incremental, but tangible, improvements in surface force health, Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, commander of naval surface forces, told USNI News this week.
“We remain on a positive trajectory. I believe that, based on solid evidence, competence in maritime skills has definitely improved,” Kitchener said.
The reforms that followed the 2017 collisions follow two decades of shortened training for sailors and surface force skipping maintenance during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2003, the same year the United States invaded Iraq, the Navy cut 16-week training at Surface Warfare Officer School and relied on new ensigns crowding into training via CD-ROMs between schedules to learn sailor skills. In 2012, the Navy reinstated an eight-week SWOS course.
The first recommendations of the investigation, based in part on the shortcomings of the deck crews on Fitzgerald to adhere to basic rules of the road, called on the Navy to strengthen early training for new ensigns and expand SWOS.
This included two Deck Officer Training (OOD) periods which teach junior officers how to run the deck using high-fidelity simulators.
In 2019, the Navy required all new surface warfare officers attending their first school – the Basic Divisional Officer Course (BDOC) – to take a deck officer course. The course was expanded from four weeks to six last year. New SWOs have 772 hours of simulator training to learn basic sailor skills. The time is double the previous requirement, Kitchener said. SWOs take a second OOD assessment after their first divisional officer tour to assess their knowledge of the maritime rules of the road.
“These structured courses, individual courses like OOD phase 1 and 2, coupled with fleet training… where you bring in a team of ships and they train on the waterfront and evolutions with quarters -masters and everyone else in the full mission deck, it reinforces all of that one-on-one training,” Kitchener said.
“I’m confident enough to say our division officer scores have gone up.”
The assessments are part of a broader reform of the SWO career path instituted in 2018 under former retired SWO Boss Vice Admiral Richard Brown which created ten pass or fail assessments throughout a career. a surface officer until he takes command of a ship.
“There has been a significant investment in trainers to give everyone the tools they need to train. It’s not just improved I think the handling of the JO ships, but their ability to use some of the tools on the ship…the different radars,” he said.
“Adding the stringency where we have the ratings, we have 10, and there are four built-in bans. If you don’t pass, you don’t go to the next wicket. It provided that stringency, we certainly saw some attrition there.
Last year, the GAO found that while improvements have helped, officers are leaving the service at a higher rate than airmen or submariners.
“SWOs had shorter average careers and higher separation rates than officers from similar U.S. Navy communities, despite U.S. Navy investments in SWO training,” the report read.
As investigators looked into the underlying causes of the collisions, the Navy found that there were manning deficiencies and degraded equipment on many ships deployed in the Pacific.
Following the collisions, the Navy assured Congress that only combat-ready ships would be deployed.
“What does a combat-ready ship mean? That means the ships deploy and leave no redundancy at the dock, everything works on that ship as they deploy,” SWO Boss Brown told USNI News in 2019.
“We will be deploying our fully certified, fully equipped vessels to 92/95 (fit/fill).”
Maintaining the Navy’s measure to ensure qualified sailors are settled on the correct jobs, known as fit, and that there are sufficient crew on board, known as filler, a been a struggle for service.
To meet demand, the service is removing sailors with the Navy Enlistment Classifications (NECs) it needs from vessels under maintenance and other non-deployed duty stations.
“We are doing it, it’s still a challenge, it’s still a bit of a sticking point because I’m worried about the ships, pulling that workforce out in the maintenance phase, especially the critical NECs,” said said Kitchener.
In fiscal year 2020, the Navy moved 1,760 sailors on temporary additional duty (TEMADD) to fill critical NEC gaps on ship deployment, Kitchener said in January.
To mitigate the effects, SURFOR launched the Surface Manning Experience (SURFMEX) data-driven crew model last year which tracked six critical NECs – sonar technician, Aegis fire controller, gas turbine system technician ( electrical and mechanical), quartermaster and mechanic – to prevent churn in the ship’s crew, according sea power.
The SURMEX program was showing good early results, but “we remain challenged with our TEMADDs and that is putting a strain on our sailors,” Kitchener said.
“We plan to do other pilots [to try] to reduce TEMADD, looking at other ways to manage men. »
A pilot program will remove the crew of a destroyer during its maintenance phase while training ashore until the ship is ready for training before deployments.
Maintaining the 92/95 manning standard “still remains a strain on the force because of this tax we pay on vessels in the maintenance phase,” he said.
Perhaps the trickiest problem the service has faced is solving the underlying problem of a zero-defect culture that creates agents who avoid risk and are quick to punish minor mistakes.
“I don’t think there is a zero-fault mentality. In our strength today. A lot of the time when we relieve people, it’s usually for toxic leadership issues, things like that, not necessarily skills, and we learn from our mistakes,” Kitchener said.
Since the collisions, the surface fleet has adopted parts of the naval aviation debriefing methodology that encourages critical evaluation in debriefings to identify errors, Kitchener said.
“You do a pre-briefing, a briefing, then a debriefing and we collect data on that from the collisions. It’s pretty good. It gets bigger every year, the reviews we do and that open discussion, so I’m pretty happy with that,” he said.
“The other way we’re trying to approach culture is to try to increase that transparency and that trust. Again, it’s being able to discuss things that have gone wrong and how do we overcome that?”
The key to culture change is to anticipate problems before they arise. Kitchener touted his command’s use of data from across the command to create a better understanding of the readiness of ships and personnel.
“We’ve led it to become a learning organization where we weren’t necessarily before. We used to be pretty reactive, and now we’re trying to be more proactive. I would tell you that we are not completely there,” he said.
The key for Kitchener is to maintain the momentum of reform to build on incremental successes.
“Vigilance remains the term. We have learned a lot, we have invested a lot and we have to keep pushing things forward,” he said.
“We all have to make sure that we follow the rules and procedures that we have in place. And I think, overall, we’re doing better in that watchdog role than we were in 2017.”