WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - After a string of deadly accidents in the western Pacific, a top admiral acknowledged on Thursday (Sept 7) that the Navy had knowingly operated warships there despite a growing number of major training and maintenance shortfalls - all to meet increasing operational demands.
An unusual hearing of two House armed services subcommittees offered no new information about what caused four Navy mishaps in the western Pacific this year, including two fatal collisions between Navy destroyers and foreign cargo ships that left 17 sailors dead. Those accidents remain under investigation.
But the hearing painted a disturbing portrait of fatigued crews and commanders on a shrinking overseas fleet saddled with constant deployments - including confronting an expansionist Chinese military and keeping vigil on a nuclear saber-rattling North Korea - with little time left to train or to repair aging ships.
"The Navy is caught between unrelenting demands and a shortage of ships," John H. Pendleton, a director of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, told lawmakers. The office has chronicled the Navy's woes in several recent reports.
Contrite Navy officials conceded that they had accepted increasing risks with uncertified ships and crews, despite repeated warnings from congressional watchdogs and the Navy's own experts. In case after case, Navy ship commanders and their chains of command approved waivers to expiring certifications of standards so long as temporary steps were put in place to mitigate the risks.
"We have allowed standards to drop as the number of certifications has grown," said Admiral William F. Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, referring to waivers of required tests certifying Navy crews and ships had met certain standards, such as seamanship.
As of June, 37 per cent of the certifications for the crews of cruisers and destroyers based at the 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, had expired, Pendleton said. That was more than a fivefold increase in the percentage of expired certifications for the crews of those ships since a Government Accountability Office report in May 2015, he said.
Thursday's hearing marked the first time that Navy officials publicly responded to Congress since the destroyer John S. McCain collided last month with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, killing 10 sailors. In June, the destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off Japan. Seven sailors died in their flooded berthing compartments.
After the McCain crash, the Navy relieved the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice-Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin; directed all 277 Navy ships worldwide to suspend operations for a day or two to examine basic seamanship and teamwork; and ordered a comprehensive review of fleet operations, training and manning to be completed within 60 days.
Lawmakers, however, seemed unsatisfied that the Navy was taking enough immediate measures to prevent another accident, and demanded to know why the Navy did not pause its operations after the Fitzgerald crash.
"It should have," Moran said.
Much of the hearing focused on the differences between Navy ships based in the United States and those overseas.
Since 2006, the Navy has doubled the number of ships based abroad. That allows the Navy to respond quickly in a crisis with a formidable number of combatant ships and aircraft.
The 7th Fleet is the Navy's biggest and busiest, with 20,000 sailors and 50 to 70 vessels. Even as the Navy has shrunk, its missions have grown to meet demands in a region that has become increasingly unstable.
In the past two decades, the number of Navy ships has decreased about 20 percent, though the time they are deployed has remained the same, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington research group funded by the Defense Department. The increased burden has fallen disproportionately on the 7th Fleet.
That tempo, Moran acknowledged Thursday, has frayed readiness. Government and military investigators have drawn similar conclusions, warning that the mission pace was leaving crews unprepared. Pendleton noted that a 2015 study by the Government Accountability Office found that the high demands of Navy fleets based overseas, like the 7th in Japan, affect maintenance and training.
Investigators found that ships spent so much time at sea that there was not enough time for routine preventive repairs. And they said that while crews based in the United States were almost always completely qualified before deploying, ships based overseas and juggling multiple missions relied on a "train on the margins" approach.
"Overall, the negative trend lines associated with the operational readiness of our forward deployed ships are deeply troubling," said Rep. Rob Wittman, Republican-Virginia, who heads the House Armed Services Committee's Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
"These negative training trends clearly contributed to the lack of seamanship evident onboard the USS John McCain and the USS Fitzgerald."
Navy officials seemed taken aback by some of these findings, even though alarms have been sounded for years.
Moran, for instance, said he always presumed the 7th Fleet was one of the Navy's most proficient because of its vast operational experience. "It was a wrong assumption," he said.
The admiral said the comprehensive review will address how much risk the Navy can accept to accomplish all its missions in the western Pacific.
"We should not and cannot have collisions at sea," Moran told lawmakers. "You have my promise we'll get to the bottom of these mishaps."