Three US Navy aircraft carriers — the biggest, most sophisticated warships in history — assembled off the Korean Peninsula, in a move timed to coincide with US President Donald Trump’s first official visit to the spot.
But behind the dramatic present of force, inquiries are emerging concerning whether the US Navy is up to the challenges it faces found in the Pacific — from both a nuclear-armed North Korea and a good strengthening China — at a time when its best leaders acknowledge it lacks the amount of money, manpower and weapons to have success. And when a massive corruption scandal threatens the ranks of a large number of its top officers.
The three-carrier exercise, conducted in early November with South Korean and Japanese warships, was just one of about 160 multilateral and bilateral exercises performed this year in the area of operations overseen by the Navy’s 7th Fleet, a Navy spokesperson told CNN. That’s about one workout every two days.
And the tempo of operations isn’t slowing.
The aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson steam with their strike groups and ships from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Push during bilateral training in June.
Stretched too thin?
Just two days following the 3 carriers — the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz, and their multi-ship strike groups — wrapped up four days of war games away Korea, the USS Ronald Reagan, with its air wing and 3 guided-missile destroyers, started a 10-day exercise with Japanese naval units away Okinawa.
While the US exercises are designed to reassure Asian allies also to show North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the United States will not be intimidated by Pyongyang’s testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the moves as well highlight concerns that the 7th Feet is being stretched too thin.
The toll of operations in the Pacific has been grim this year.
Two US guided-missile destroyers, USS Fitzgerald and USS John S McCain, suffered collisions with merchant ships, leaving 17 US sailors dead and both warships needing hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs.
The accidents, off Japan and Singapore respectively, also remaining the Navy wondering how two of the very most complex ships on the seas couldn’t even navigate crowded shipping lanes.
In total, the 7th Fleet has clocked up five major non-combat incidents in 2017 involving ships and an additional two involving aircraft, including Wednesday’s crash in the Philippine Sea of a plane taking personnel to the Reagan.
Jan-31 Tuesday 31 January:
USS Antietam runs aground found in Tokyo Bay The USS Antietam, a good guided-missile cruiser, damaged its propellers and spilled hydraulic essential oil into the water after working aground while the ship was anchoring found in Tokyo Bay. May-9 Tuesday 9 May:
USS Lake Champlain collides with South Korean fishing boat The guided-missile cruiser was struck by a good 60- to 70-foot-long South Korean fishing boat while conducting operations in international waters nearby the Korean Peninsula, the Navy said. June-17 Saturday 17 June:
USS Fitzgerald collides with Philippine cargo ship The collision between the Fitzgerald, a good guided-missile destroyer, and the ACX Crystal on June 17 claimed the lives of seven US sailors. It took place 56 nautical miles off the coast of Honshu, Japan, within an area greatly traveled by industrial shipping. Aug-21 Mon 21 August:
USS John S McCain collides with essential oil tanker off Singapore THE UNITED STATES guided-missile destroyer collided with a Liberian essential oil tanker in crowded shipping lanes off Singapore, leaving 10 US sailors dead and five considerably more injured. The accident left a large highly apparent hole in the US ship. Nov-18 Saturday 18 November:
USS Benfold struck by Japanese tugboat The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold was struck by a Japanese tugboat while participating in a scheduled towing workout off Japan. The tug boat shed propulsion and drifted into the US ship, the Navy said. No one was injured.
A US Authorities Accountability Office survey from September warned lengthy deployments of US ships located in Japan — simply because both Fitzgerald and McCain had been at the time of their collisions — often lead to key training requirements being neglected due to the requirements of operational duties, something the survey describes simply because a “problem.”
Without training time, “perishable skills atrophy,” said Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor who spent a decade “driving” US warships.
“Military commands are just like a football crew, you constantly have to practice,” added Schuster.
Appearing before the Property Armed Services Committee as part of an investigation into the series of fatal crashes and collisions in sea, the Navy’s Zero. 2 officer, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran, said the Navy is trying to do an excessive amount of with too little.
“We continue to have a supply-and-demand difficulty which is positioning a heavy strain on the force,” said Moran.
All of these items culminate with this idea we aren’t big plenty of to do everything we’re appearing tasked to do Vice Chief of US Naval Operations Adm. William Moran
“All of these things culminate with this idea we aren’t big enough to do everything we’re becoming tasked to do,” Moran added. “And our culture is, ‘we’re likely to get it done,’ because that’s what the Navy is about. And sometimes our customs works against us.”
It’s an opinion shared throughout the naval establishment, where frustrations happen to be mounting regarding the rising set of operational demands positioned on the 7th Fleet.
In a testimony delivered to Congress in September, John Pendleton, director of defense features and administration in the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said the Navy was operating on what persons in the service call a ‘train on the margins’ approach.
That means ships had no dedicated training time but instead in shape whatever they could into period on missions, said Pendleton.
Exhausted crews could make terrible decisions. As Schuster highlights, regarding the Fitzgerald collision, officers on view didn’t wake the sleeping captain when the warship got in range of the merchant vessel.
“They were either incredibly complacent or sloppy beyond information,” said Schuster.
The Navy has launched multiple investigations, a safety pause, and reviews in the wake of the recent accidents.
During an appearance at the House Armed Services Committee hearing in September, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said the reviews includes a chief of naval operations-led “comprehensive analyze” which will “check out the tactical and operational situation” in addition to a departmental “strategic readiness analyze” that he said will involve “an unbiased team made up of military and sector experts which will look and examine root triggers, accountability, long-term systemic issues, and provide remedial insight.”
“We are taking quick corrective actions to make sure we meet the training and material readiness typical to prevent another mishap,” Richardson said.
The Navy has also taken several personnel actions, including sacking the commanders of the Fitzgerald and the McCain, several other senior officers, as well as the commander of 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the very first time a fleet commander features been relieved of duty in the history of the US Navy.
Aucoin, who had been commander of the fleet since September 2015, was dismissed “because of a lack of confidence found in his ability to command.”
F/A good-18 Hornets fly over US and South Korean warships during an exercise off the Korean Peninsula.
The Navy’s internal report on the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions, released in early November, said cutting corners to meet requirements on 7th Fleet ships had become the norm.
“The risks which were taken in the Western Pacific accumulated over time, and did so insidiously,” the survey said. “The powerful environment normalized to the stage where individuals and sets of individuals could no longer recognize that the operations in location to identify and assess readiness were no longer doing work at the ship and headquarters level.”
Surveys of sailors aboard the Japan-based guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh completed between June 2015 and August this year point to severe morale problems.
One sailor described serving aboard the ship to be akin to being in “a floating prison,” according to surveys obtained via the Flexibility of Information Work by Navy Times
The study responses, which come across the a huge selection of pages and list a range of complaints, including suicidal thoughts and despair, also show that junior sailors were concerned about receiving harsh punishments from the Shiloh’s then-commander, Capt. Adam M. Aycoc, including becoming positioned in the brig and fed just “bread and water.”
“Even the taxi drivers on bottom know us for being the ‘USS Bakery and Water,'” one study respondent said.
Leading commanders acknowledge the Navy could be asking too much of its sailors, ships and aircraft.
Testifying before the Property Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of the US naval atmosphere forces, detailed the remarkable lengths the Navy now has to go to send fully equipped carrier air groups to sea, due to the low stocks of working apparatus — including fighter jets and educated personnel.
“To get Carl Vinson, Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt ready to deploy in January, June and October of this time, and equip their embarked atmosphere wings with the mandatory number of mission capable jets, 94 strike fighters needed to be transferred, to and from the maintenance depots, or between F-18 squadrons on both coasts,” said Shoemaker.
While this workout is encouraging, the reality remains that our Navy is underfunded, over-tasked, and as well small. US Sen. John McCain
In September, Moran said a huge selection of parts were cannibalized from most F/A-18s and used on others to get carrier-based squadrons combat prepared.
One congressional aide told CNN that having to reshuffle 94 fighters to equip 3 carriers is “crazy.”
The problem also directly impacted the sailors and pilots aboard those ships as the Navy was forced to fill gaps in those deploying squadrons and the three carriers by temporarily reassigning a lot more than 300 sailors or extending their deployments beyond normal lengths, Shoemaker said.
Such moves, which Shoemaker called a strike fighter “shell game,” hurt morale, meaning personnel don’t sign up to extend their Navy careers, leaving positions wide open and years of training and experience wasted.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Products and services Committee, applauded the Navy for conducting exercises with three carriers nearby the Korean Peninsula but also highlighted several of the shortfalls plaguing the assistance.
“Too often exercises like this, which happen to be critical to maintaining tactical proficiency, are sacrificed because of higher priority operations, maintenance delays, or fiscal constraints,” McCain said found in a written statement.
“While this workout is encouraging, the reality remains that our Navy can be underfunded, over-tasked, and too little,” he said.
Navy commanders have previously warned that years of spending cuts have small the number of usable aircraft and ships — a concern that has only escalated amid increasing requirements for all of us military presence.
For the Navy’s 7th Fleet — the most significant of the Navy’s numbered fleets — that means staying on watch out for North Korean provocations, including having ships on the set that could shoot down ballistic missiles headed for Japan, Guam as well as the mainland United States. Those ships included the Fitzgerald, John S McCain and Shiloh.
It also includes freedom of navigation exercises found in the South China Sea, where the Beijing authorities has been construction man-made islands , installing fortifications to strengthen territorial promises, and deploying new ships and planes that challenge a long-period US technological edge.
And then generally there are exercises with an I ndian army eager for US help in increasing its naval features, watching Russian nuclear-armed submarines deploy from that nation’s eastern ports into the Pacific, and making slot calls from Australia to Vietnam showing the US flag and maintain an American presence.
In total, the 7th Fleet’s area of operation spans a lot more than 124 million square kilometers, stretching from the International Day Range to the India-Pakistan border; and from the Kuril Islands in the North to Antarctica in the south.
We can build up our navy to a level where it can do all of these items without deteriorating crews and hardware, or we can ‘pivot’ or ‘re-balance’ more of our forces to the Pacific theater. James R. Holmes, professor of technique, US Naval War College
In regards to China, in particular, neither the Obama nor the Trump administrations has shifted forces to the Pacific in adequate enough numbers or capability, said James R. Holmes, professor of technique at the US Naval War College.
“China has come to this commonsense realization, and understands that it can grind down adversary ocean services just by being dynamic in its ‘near seas,’ mainly the China seas,” said Holmes. “Imposing a swift ‘optempo’ on your opponent, signifying keeping him on the go constantly, wearies him over time. And while that was not a direct cause of this year’s mishaps, it does contribute to crew fatigue, lessen training time, and so exacerbate the factors our navy cited in its recent collision reports.”
In response, the Navy has two options, said Holmes. “We are able to build up our navy to a level where it can do all of these items without deteriorating crews and components, or we can ‘pivot’ or ‘re-balance’ considerably more of our forces to the Pacific theater.”
Holmes highlights that while large, the 7th Fleet represents only part of the US Navy. “If we can no longer overpower opponents in both Atlantic and Pacific, then we need to produce some hard selections about where to apply the majority of our work — and accept that that means accepting risk in the other theater.”
F/A good-18 Hornets fly off the carrier USS Carl Vinson off the Korean Peninsula found in March. US officials say they’ve acquired to scavenge parts to keep the F/A-18s flyable.
The Navy’s operational problems can be tackled, argue experts. But that’s without contending with the biggest corruption scandal in US naval history.
The ongoing scandal has seen 20 current and former Navy officials charged so far in a fraud and bribery investigation stretching across Asia.
Referred to as the so-called “Fats Leonard” scandal, the investigation centers on former security contractor Leonard Glenn “Fats Leonard” Francis, whose company presented products and services to Navy ships including fuel and tugboats.
Since the investigation started in 2013, multiple Navy officials have been arrested and accused of accepting cash, prostitutes and all-expenses-paid trips in exchange for steering ships to ports where Francis’ company managed.
In June, Michael Brooks, who served as the US naval attaché at the US Embassy in the Philippines from 2006 to 2008, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison after admitting to using his influence to benefit Francis in exchange for “bribes of travel and entertainment expenses, resort rooms and the services of prostitutes,” the Justice Department said.
The Washington Post reported in early November that the Navy is reviewing the actions of 440 more active-duty and retired personnel in connections with the scandal. According to the survey, sixty current and former admirals are contained in the review.
In a article published previous this month by Stars and Stripes , Capt. Michael Junge, a military professor at the US Naval War College, connected the scandal to wider, more systemic challenges. “There is no way you might have as substantially churn as Fats Leonard caused in the last couple of years in 7th Fleet and have it not affect what’s been going on,” said Junge. “You merely can’t separate it.”
THE UNITED STATES 7th Fleet this year has participated in about 160 exercises with other countries, including that one with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The coming storm
THE UNITED STATES Pacific Fleet was first established in 1907, though it can trace its origins again substantially further to the formation of the Pacific Squadron in 1821. Since then, it has viewed its size grow consistent with its overall strategic importance, as Asia — and East Asia in particular — became a center point of US foreign policy.
Today the fleet is the world’s most significant , with approximately 200 ships and submarines, almost 1,200 aircraft, and a lot more than 130,000 sailors and civilians.
Since coming to office President Trump has collection the purpose of bolstering the Navy’s overall size to 355 ships, up from its recent total of 308
But the goal also means keeping what’s in the fleet in doing work order — and that’s no easy task.
Maintenance delays are sidelining 11 Navy ships, a good congressional aide told CNN.
A September report from the Government Accountability Office discovered that the Navy’s shipyard facilities and equipment in poor condition with a backlog of restoration and maintenance which will take at least 19 years to clear.
Lawmakers have often cited budget caps implemented by Congress and President Barack Obama found in 2011, in conjunction with the high demand for the fleet’s products and services, as key factors contributing to the Navy’s lack of fiscal flexibility,” the survey said.
“Inadequate facilities and apparatus resulted in maintenance delays that contributed in part to a lot more than 1,300 lost operational days – days when ships were unavailable for operations – for aircraft carriers and 12,500 shed operational days for submarines,” based on the report.
The littoral combat ship USS Coronado fires a Harpoon missile during Exercise Pacific Griffin, conducted with the Singaporean navy.
In early November, the House of Representatives passed an total annual defense policy bill that — if passed by the Senate — would authorize the entire ship maintenance budget requested by the Navy and provide additional funding for considerably more aircraft.
“This year’s National Security Authorization Act can help address this issue by increasing financing for the Navy, including authorizing five additional ships and hundreds of millions of dollars for maintenance above and beyond the President’s budget demand,” McCain said in a statement.
But while the defense expenses is a move around in the proper direction, the financing authorized won’t resolve the readiness problem — a concern which will take years to address, according to Randy Forbes, a good former US representative who served as chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee.
“This is not a good spigot you can change on / off,” Forbes said, discussing defense financing. “If we get into a conflict you will fight using what you have so it is important to project out what you need.”
Even though Forbes recognized the Navy’s need to flex its muscle tissue through exercises just like those conducted close to Korea, he said the US must address the fleet’s “diminishing surge capacity” as a potential conflict will likely need a response by a lot more than 3 carriers to carry out the operations plan.
To ensure its carrier strike groups are able to respond to an emerging conflict, the US must launch a training course to “rebuild the Navy,” Forbes told CNN.
“The existing math won’t work,” Forbes said. “It does take an overall rebuilding of the Navy to meet the challenges around the globe.”