Written by Anthony ClayEncyclopediaGeopolitica.comOriginally appeared at
The United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet is entering a tough period of scrutiny following two high profile and deadly warship collisions, a vessel running aground, and a less publicized collision all within a year. Despite this unfortunate recent publicity, this is not a new state of affairs. WESTPAC has long served as the tip of the spear for the U.S’ warfighting readiness, and they have also been plagued with a history of avoidable errors. As the Asia-Pacific region remains a major center of geopolitical tension for the U.S, the Navy must solve these issues or find itself facing real crises with significantly degraded capacity.
While Seventh Fleet has found itself the focus of intense criticism in recent months, the reality is that the root causes for these incidents stem from three separate areas; Training, Operations, and Culture.
The surface fleet has long been the last in line for creating new training, and first on the chopping block for cutting back existing training. Aviators and submariners have relied on their schools in Pensacola and Groton, respectively, to train their next generations of warfighters and to continue educating the current one, since the beginnings of their communities. Surface Warfare Officers however have been much more reluctant at building their school at Newport into a true Center of Excellence, and it wasn’t until 1961 that SWOs even had an official school. Steven Wills’ examined this issue in his excellent article on the subject. Even with the advent of the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS), there were still significant gaps, and disparities in training.
As a way to save money, and theoretically streamline the path of a new officer to the fleet, the Division Officer Course (SWOSDOC) was eliminated in 2003. SWOSDOC had been maligned for years as a place to party for six months, as kind of a buffer between college and a real job, and it just happened to be in Newport, Rhode Island; a party town if there ever was one. While it may have been a pleasant place to be stationed for training, and it not have hosted the most challenging of curricula, it was still a place to give a young officer familiarity with the subject matter that they would soon be immersed in. When it was cancelled, it was replaced with computer based training, and culminating with one three week course in Newport where you were expected to already know the subjects at hand. The level of knowledge of the training groups passing through this new system (of which I am one such Officer) was always found to be lacking compared to their peers who had gone through the original SWOSDOC.
After several years with this minimum of formalized instruction, schools have been put in place to fix these gaps, however the damage to the current cadre of officers has already been done. The officers that did not receive this training are now the Department Heads and Executive Officers throughout the fleet. While computer-based training may have its merits, there is still no real replacement for formal classroom time with practical examinations. And even with these new schools for young SWOs, it still falls primarily on Department Heads out in the Fleet to train young Division Officers, even when they themselves have insufficient levels of knowledge.
This reduction in training was also a side effect of an unspoken shift in priority of what the “real job” of an officer in the surface navy was expected to be. The job of an officer is now seen as a program manager; one need not be proficient at driving a ship, as long as you could present a management or administration program that would please an inspector. A majority of my peers would not claim to be competent ship drivers, nor even feel like that is their primary responsibility.
Decreased funding for underway time (time actually spent out at sea) along with massively bloated inspection requirements, have also all but removed training at sea. This invaluable underway time has been replaced with more time in port, and on the occasions where ships actually are underway are overwhelmingly focused on inspections. This is true for the East and West Coast fleets, but is significantly more pronounced in Seventh Fleet. Most underways are spent transiting to various exercises and operations, giving very little time for the basic training time needed to build proficiency.
Around the same time as these changes to training doctrine, the Surface fleet borrowed a page from Aviation and introduced a concept called CO/XO Fleet Up. Historically, an officer would leave his tour as a Department Head to go before a selection board in order to reach the position of Executive Officer (XO), and then go to sea as an XO, go back to shore and face the selection board again for a Command position, and then finally go to sea as a Commanding Officer (CO). This meant gaps of no longer than 3 years ashore, then returning to sea for 18-24 months, up to and including an O-6 Major Command.
SWOs today will go to a selection board within a few years of leaving their Department Head tours and screen for Command. Being a successful XO is no longer a prerequisite for being a CO. It is assumed that if you are screened for CO, you will make a fine XO. Additionally, this pushes you back from going to sea for several more years. Instead of being XO as a Lieutenant Commander and CO as a Commander, you are now feasibly leaving your DH tour as a recently promoted Lieutenant Commander and not going back to sea until you are already a Commander. This can create periods of 5-7 years between ships, and even longer if your second tour was on a staff where you were not part of a ship’s company. Driving a ship is not like riding a bike; some of the knowledge is consistent, but the technology, capabilities of the ship, and the requirements from your chain of command all change significantly.
Seventh Fleet has been a unique position for some time. Until the last few years, it was the only operational fleet who also owned organic forces, meaning that specific vessels were permanently under Seventh Fleet’s command. Fifth Fleet, predominately responsible for the Middle East, has only a small number of permanently attached small surface assets such as Mine Countermeasures Ships and Coastal Patrol Ships. Sixth Fleet has only received 4 destroyers, in addition to the Command Ship already home-ported in Italy, as permanent assigned forces in the last few years. Contrast that to Seventh Fleet where there are 26 assigned warships. The Continental U.S. (CONUS) fleets are meanwhile tasked with ensuring that ships are manned, trained, and equipped before deploying. Seventh Fleet is responsible for this, as well as being an operational commander in one of the globe’s most challenging maritime and geopolitical environments.
In reality these bilateral exercises are little more than a series of meetings, getting vessels underway together for a photo opportunity, and having a party or two. If the Marines are there, they will go ashore and camp in the jungle for a few days.
Ships are in a constant state of movement. There are periodic breaks for maintenance, but mostly they are moving about the theater. For many ships this is embodied in Theater Security Cooperation events. These are mostly bilateral exercises around the Asia-Pacific region used to build international partnerships, and buy alliances. Ostensibly the goal is to train these nations to be effective coalition partners when war breaks out. In reality these bilateral exercises are little more than a series of meetings, getting vessels underway together for a photo opportunity, and having a party or two. If the Marines are there, they will go ashore and camp in the jungle for a few days.
This is not altogether a bad thing, and it is the best we can hope for given the circumstances. The U.S. has been a significant player in the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War Two, and even more since the French withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1950s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without a true local power, the U.S. filled the void, however now that China has advanced its position as the regional hegemon the U.S. has transitioned to playing a role more akin to that of a perennial player. While the U.S. still maintains a very strong presence in South Korea, Singapore and Japan, and a token Marine force in Australia, there is no standing presence elsewhere in the region. In addition, where American money has done a lot to support training and development of these partner-nation militaries, China has also funded large scale construction projects that have expanded their influence. Additionally, China has been able to conduct similar quantities of bilateral exercises with these countries, in effect allowing Beijing to “poach” U.S. allies.
With dwindling ship numbers in the Pacific fleets, there have been fewer traditional WESTPAC deployments from CONUS and Hawaii based ships. Instead, over the last 30 years, these ships have mostly just passed through on the way to the Persian Gulf. Thus, the onus of supporting the historic exercises, building new ones, and still conducting real world Naval operations has fallen on the ships of Seventh Fleet.
Seventh Fleet likes to believe it is on a wartime footing. The U.S. is not currently involved in any active wars in the Asia-Pacific (beyond small localized counterinsurgency operations supporting local forces), however there is the constant threat of a conflict breaking out. This has shaped the mindset of Seventh Fleet to believe itself to be the “Tip of the Spear,” an overused analogy in military parlance if there ever was one. While it is right that Seventh Fleet is engaging in two simultaneous, and vastly different cold wars thanks to tensions with North Korea and China, the support given to these ships doesn’t match expectations.
It’s a common opinion that the best and brightest are not sent to Seventh Fleet. If you are looking to build someone’s career, you send them to Norfolk or San Diego where they can operate under the watchful eye of the Flag Officers that will assist with the string pulling that will see that officer promoted. Instead, when you have an officer that has reached the right milestones, but don’t want to keep them close at hand, they get sent off into the distance to operate under the eyes of other people who were not perceived as valuable enough to keep in the major fleet concentration areas. While that may or may not be true, the perception exists. And when there are multiple collisions and grounding incidents, it doesn’t suggest a fleet being staffed by the best of the best.
The other major cultural problem in Seventh Fleet is the belief that the fleet is always on deployment. In essence this is true, and the ships are always on deployment which is why the Navy calls these ships the Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). The problem that this creates is that there are risks that are considered permissible on deployment that aren’t in a low intensity training environment. Maintenance can be deferred; operations can go at higher tempos for longer times; training can take a back seat to operations.
How you get there is less important than just getting there.
The previous Chief of Naval Operations coined a phrase that the current one chose to hang on to: Mission first; Sailors always. In the historic division between Sailors and Officers, it seems that the Officers got lost. The heroic actions of the Sailors on Fitzgerald, McCain, and Guardian show that we have not let them down. The actions of the Officers who put these ships into danger show that they have been left behind somewhere.
The problems with seamanship in Seventh Fleet are not unique to the Western Pacific. But when you operate at a higher tempo than elsewhere around the world, these issues are going to show more frequently. Consider that what has happened this year is not a representation of problems in a small corner of the navy, but an indictment of the last 20 years of management of training, operations, and culture.
Anthony Clay is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy who has served in every operational fleet, and most geographic Combatant Commands. He has an International Relations Degree from Tulane University and a Operations Research Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. Anthony is currently assigned to a staff posting within a numbered fleet.