Navy Plans to Release George Washington Suicide Investigation Next Year, MCPON Tells Congress

The top enlisted officer in the Navy told a House panel it will be next year before the sea service reports its findings into a rash of suicides aboard carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73), as well as sailors’ living conditions aboard carriers undergoing extensive mid-life overhauls in the nation’s shipyards. Testifying before the House Appropriations […]

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell L. Smith addresses the crew aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) during an all-hands call in the ship’s hangar bay on April 22, 2022. US Navy Photo

The top enlisted officer in the Navy told a House panel it will be next year before the sea service reports its findings into a rash of suicides aboard carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73), as well as sailors’ living conditions aboard carriers undergoing extensive mid-life overhauls in the nation’s shipyards.

Testifying before the House Appropriations military construction and veterans affairs subcommittee, Master Chief Russell Smith said, “I think it’s too early to say it’s a problem of leadership” aboard George Washington. He was referring to the three apparent suicides that occurred in a week aboard the carrier in April.

In what will likely be his final appearance before the committee, Smith added, “I wouldn’t say Newport News [Shipbuilding] is the problem” either. He noted the yard is working on two carriers simultaneously, making parking near that yard’s gates problematic. The situation discourages sailors from leaving the place where they both live and work.

Smith, who visited the carrier in late April, said instead the sailors continue to live and work in “the heat zone.” He added that he has taken sailors’ concerns from his “all hands” meeting with the crew to senior Navy leaders for action.

Smith said “we can minimize the churn” of having to move off the ship to housing ashore, but 184 sailors opted to stay aboard George Washington likely because they didn’t want to commute back and forth to work or move several times within a few months. After another delay, work is scheduled to finish in March 2023.

The 400 sailors who were living aboard the carrier at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia were all offered the opportunity to move to housing off the ship, but 184 chose to remain aboard, he said.

In a committee better known for “brick and mortar issues,” like barracks, family housing, child care centers, dry docks, warehouses and runways, the members zeroed in on what sailors were actually doing on the ships during the overhauls and who was watching out for their mental health.

“Everybody there is working,” when the ship is in the yard, Smith told the panel. Although what a sailor is doing is different from what they enlisted for or during a deployment, he said the sailor “also has a job of maintaining the equipment” they would be using when at sea.

“Sailors are no better or worse than we were coming in,” Smith said, and noted the Navy stopped making sailors live aboard ships when they were in port as he did when he received his first two assignments. “We don’t do that anymore.”

Although circumstances for a junior, single sailor have changed, Smith stressed it was more incumbent now for chiefs and petty officers “to lean in” and look after sailors’ mental well-being.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, who just completed an inspection of Newport News Shipbuilding and the carrier, expressed similar thoughts. Like Smith at the hearing, Del Toro said in a statement Tuesday, “In the most positive sense of the word, we need to be good Shipmates.” He added, “when you notice someone in your division or work center starting to act different or something just isn’t right with them, don’t be afraid to say something directly to them or to get someone from the medical or resilience team involved as soon as possible. We sometimes call that ‘invasive leadership,’ but I think a better term is involved leadership.”

“Suicide is a massive problem,” Smith said at the hearing.

Speaking personally in his prepared remarks and again in spoken testimony, Smith said the pandemic has exacerbated the need for mental health counseling and shone a spotlight on the scarcity of providers available nationwide.

“We are in desperate need of providers, as wait times for all but the most egregious cases – those at the precipice of suicide – is averaging five to six weeks for an appointment. This lack of capacity and resulting wait times is something I can personally attest to, as I sought care last spring and had to move forward with seeing a civilian provider at my own expense – something our sailors cannot afford, and should not have to endure,” Smith said.

He told the panel that as soon as the carrier’s command requested help from the Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team (SPRINT), it sent help to the carrier to assist sailors. The team is located at the nearby naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va.

Several committee members said what happened aboard George Washington was similar to three suicides aboard carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2019, when it, too, was in for an extended mid-life overhaul at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va.

This week, the Navy reported that other steps have been taken to address longer-term mental health concerns and quality-of-life issues aboard ships undergoing extended overhaul. For George Washington, the Navy is installing cell repeaters in the ship’s skin, offering wireless internet and unveiling an improved morale, welfare and recreation program for off-duty sailors living on the carrier.

On cell phone connections for sailors in shipyards or on deployment, Smith said, “there is something to being connected with someone at home” that improves morale.

Suicide Prevention Resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255

The Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook is a guide designed to be a reference for policy requirements, program guidance, and educational tools for commands. The handbook is organized to support fundamental command Suicide Prevention Program efforts in Training, Intervention, Response, and Reporting.

The 1 Small ACT Toolkit helps sailors foster a command climate that supports psychological health. The toolkit includes suggestions for assisting sailors in staying mission ready, recognizing warning signs of increased suicide risk in oneself or others, and taking action to promote safety.

The Lifelink Monthly Newsletter provides recommendations for sailors and families, including how to help survivors of suicide loss and to practice self-care.

The Navy Operational Stress Control Blog “NavStress” provides sailors with content promoting stress navigation and suicide prevention. 

Navy Nearing 1,000 COVID-19 Vaccine Denial Separations

The Navy is inching toward 1,000 separations due to COVID-19 vaccine denial, with the sea service approving separations for another 56 sailors over the past week. The Navy currently has 980 total separations due to continued refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the service’s weekly COVID-19 update. Of the separations, 861 are active-duty […]

Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Gregzon Fontanilla, from Guam, prepares a COVID-19 vaccine aboard the America-class amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA-7) on May 10, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Navy is inching toward 1,000 separations due to COVID-19 vaccine denial, with the sea service approving separations for another 56 sailors over the past week.

The Navy currently has 980 total separations due to continued refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the service’s weekly COVID-19 update. Of the separations, 861 are active-duty sailors, while 97 are reservists. The total also includes 22 entry-level separations for sailors within their first 180 days of service.

The current separations are sailors who who have not applied for religious exemptions, as the Navy is currently suspended from separating anyone who requested a religious waiver for the vaccine due to a court ruling. However, any of the separations before the court ruling on March 28 could have included those who had requested a religious exemption and were denied.

The Navy had approved 37 religious exemptions for sailors who were going to retire or voluntarily separate from the service, but those cases were put on hold as a result of the court ruling.

The sea service has also granted 13 religious exemptions for members of the Individual Ready Reserve on the condition that they get vaccinated if called to active-duty or reserve status.

The Navy has also granted 14 permanent and 214 temporary medical exemptions for active-duty sailors and one permanent and 81 temporary medical waivers for reservists.

Cruiser USS Vicksburg Nearly Finished with Modernization Program, Set For Decommissioning

A Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser the Navy wants to decommission next year is nearly finished with a modernization overhaul that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, a service official told lawmakers today. USS Vicksburg (CG-69) is about 85 percent of the way through the cruiser modernization program meant to extend the life of the ship. “The […]

USS Vicksburg (CG-69) getting repaired at BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair, Va., on April 8, 2022. Christopher P. Cavas Photo used with permission

A Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser the Navy wants to decommission next year is nearly finished with a modernization overhaul that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, a service official told lawmakers today.

USS Vicksburg (CG-69) is about 85 percent of the way through the cruiser modernization program meant to extend the life of the ship.

“The cruiser Vicksburg, I think, is in that 85 percent range,” Jay Stefany, the principal civilian deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee on Wednesday.

Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD-46) which is also undergoing upgrades to extend the ship’s service life is at a similar stage in its modernization, according to Stefany. He confirmed the Navy has spent close to $300 million to upgrade each ship.

Vicksburg and Tortuga are two of the 24 ships the Navy wants to decommission as part of its Fiscal Year 2023 budget proposal. Both ships are undergoing their modernization programs at BAE Systems Ship Repair in Norfolk, Va.

Asked last month for the completion percentage of the two ships, a spokesperson for Naval Sea Systems Command said the Navy does not track these figures. The spokesperson said Vicksburg is slated to finish its modernization overhaul in the summer of 2023, but that the completion date for Tortuga “is under review.”

The recent budget request, which also proposed decommissioning every Freedom-class LCS currently in service, has met criticism from lawmakers who are unhappy that the Navy is decommissioning more ships in a year than it plans to buy.

During a separate House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) criticized the Navy for how it has used taxpayer funds. Granger, the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the service in the last two years has spent almost $500 million to modernize Vicksburg.

“Some of these ships – especially the Littoral Combat Ships – are among the newest in the fleet. The Navy claims they don’t have enough sufficient funding to maintain and operate these ships, but that’s not the case. Instead, they’ve mismanaged billions of dollars in maintenance funding. One glaring example of this is the USS Vicksburg, a cruiser up for decommissioning this year,” Granger said.
“Since 2020, the Navy has awarded nearly $500 million in contracts to upgrade the cruiser. At a time when the ship is still in its maintenance period, the Navy is proposing to scrap it. If the Navy experts expect Congress to support its vision for this fleet, it must do a much better job of managing the inventory it has. We will not stand idly by as valuable taxpayer funds are wasted.”

Navy officials have repeatedly argued the money would be better spent on modernization efforts than on extending the life of the aging cruisers. During the March budget rollout, Navy deputy assistant secretary for budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton said decommissioning the proposed 24 ships in the FY 2023 budget would save the service $3.6 billion across the Pentagon’s five-year budget outlook.

Seeking to justify the proposal before defense appropriators today, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said both the LCS and the cruisers would not stand up well in a potential conflict against Russia or China.

“We took a look at our topline and we took a look at a Navy that we can sustain, a Navy that we can afford. But to make it the most lethal, capable, ready navy that we can – in other words, we’re trying to field the most lethal, capable, ready Navy we can based on the budget that we have rather than a larger Navy that’s less capable, less lethal and less ready,” Gilday told lawmakers.

“So we stratified our warfighting platforms. An LCS fell at the bottom of that stratification, along with the older cruisers that have an older radar, that have leaks below the waterline, radars that can’t detect these new Chinese threats, as an example.”

The FY 2023 proposal wants to decommission nine Freedom-class LCS and axes the planned anti-submarine warfare mission package originally slated for both variants in the class.

“Much of the testing done on that module was done on LCS-3, the Fort Worth, that helped us make the determination that we should not put another dollar against that system because it wouldn’t pan out against high-end Chinese and Russian threats,” Gilday said of the ASW mission module testing. Granger was the sponsor for USS Fort Worth (LCS-3).

“So regrettably we made tough decisions in this budget proposal to decommission, or propose to decommission, ships that just wouldn’t have added value to the fight,” Gilday said. “At the same time, we’re taking that money and investing it in our priorities, which are readiness, modernization, and then capacity at an affordable rate.”

Granger expressed her skepticism about the Navy’s plans for the LCS.

“Each one of these ships has significant useful service life left. One of them … was just commissioned in August of 2020. I don’t know how we can have confidence in your request when just a few years ago at this same hearing, the Navy advocated for LCS funding with the same passion you’re now expressing to get rid of them,” she said.

Harry S. Truman Strike Group Back Under NATO Command for Neptune Shield Drills

USS Harry S. Truman returned to NATO command as the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group participates in exercise Neptune Shield, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced to reporters Tuesday. Neptune Shield is the third in a series of exercises between the United States and NATO allies. The U.S. previously participated in Neptune Challenge in […]

The Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Sioux City (LCS-11), front, transits the Tyrrhenian Sea alongside the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) on May 16, 2022. US Navy Photo

USS Harry S. Truman returned to NATO command as the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group participates in exercise Neptune Shield, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced to reporters Tuesday.

Neptune Shield is the third in a series of exercises between the United States and NATO allies. The U.S. previously participated in Neptune Challenge in October 2021 and Neptune Strike from January to February 2022.

Neptune Shield is slated to last through May, Kirby said.

“This activity increases the pace and flexibility of command and control of US naval and amphibious forces between Sixth Fleet the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, operating in the Mediterranean Sea, USS Kearsarge amphibious ready group that’s operating in the Baltic Sea, along with the embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit,” Kirby said.

The Harry S. Truman CSG has been operating in and around the Mediterranean since January, when it first went under NATO command as part of Neptune Strike. This is the second time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft carrier has been placed under NATO control.

The carrier strike group consists of Harry S. Truman, cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG-56), Carrier Air Wing 1 and Destroyer Squadron 28, which includes USS Cole (DDG-67), USS Gravely (DDG-107), USS Bainbridge (DDG-96), USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109), USS Gonzalez (DDG-66) and Royal Norwegian Navy frigate HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen (F310).

The Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group will also participate in Neptune Shield, Kirby told reporters. The ARG is currently operating in the Baltic Sea, according to USNI News’ Fleet Tracker.

USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) is set to make a port call in Stockholm, according to a Swedish news outlet. Kirby did not confirm the port visit, but he said that a visit would not have anything to do with Sweden’s interest in joining NATO.

The Kearsarge ARG consists of Kearsarge, amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD-24) and dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44). The 22nd MEU is also embarked on the ARG.

U.S., NATO in for a ‘Long Haul’ Conflict with Russia, Says Polish PM

NATO and the West must be “in the fight for the long haul” economically, diplomatically and militarily in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression, Poland’s prime minister said Tuesday. Although drawing the line at direct military confrontation, Mateusz Morawiecki, in prepared remarks delivered by a Polish chancellery official at the Atlantic Council, said, “it’s up to […]

U.S. Army Sgt. Keegan Davis, assigned to 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, walks towards his Soldiers after laying out parts of machine guns onto the front of an M1A2 Abrams tank after conducting a live-fire accuracy screening test as part of Defender 22 at Mielno Range, Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, May 11, 2022. U.S. Army Photo

NATO and the West must be “in the fight for the long haul” economically, diplomatically and militarily in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression, Poland’s prime minister said Tuesday.

Although drawing the line at direct military confrontation, Mateusz Morawiecki, in prepared remarks delivered by a Polish chancellery official at the Atlantic Council, said, “it’s up to us to win the battle” of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty and blunting possible Kremlin moves against alliance members.

“Ukraine is fighting this war not only for its security but ours.” He said the Feb. 24 invasion “turns out to be a wake-up call” to all of Europe about President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in eastern and central Europe.

In response to the invasion, the prime minister added, “we, the Europeans, have to step up our defense spending.”

Poland already meets the NATO threshold of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on security. In light of the war in Ukraine, Warsaw intends to raise that percentage in coming years.

Morawiecki praised the United States for its “stepped-up presence” on NATO’s eastern flank to signal to Russia that the alliance is serious about defense.

Mark Brzezinski, American ambassador to Poland, said that in Warsaw, there are now 12,600 American soldiers on Polish bases. Either arriving with them or coming soon are M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.

“We are being tested, and Poland is under threat,” he said when explaining the reasoning behind the U.S. troop levels there.

Former ambassador to Poland, Daniel Fried, said, “we don’t know who will win” in Ukraine, but the Ukrainians “have a reasonable chance of success.” He said the West has to keep the pressure on Moscow. “We can’t screw this up.”

Brzezinski added that the movement of so many U.S. forces and so much equipment eastward from the U.S. and other bases in Europe “allow[s] NATO to stand firm.” He said the American build-up and similar moves by the United Kingdom further underscore Washington’s and London’s commitment to the alliance.

“Sanctions will not stop Russia today,” Katarzyna Pisarska, chair of the Warsaw Security Forum, added. “But we need more of them” to weaken Putin, his coterie and the nation’s economy over time.

Europeans also need to become more energy independent from Moscow to cripple Putin’s ability to wage war by cutting off revenues from his largest source of foreign revenue, said Georgette Mossbacher, who also served as an ambassador to Poland. By building liquified natural gas terminals and exploring nuclear energy, Mossbacher said Warsaw took these steps when Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Foreign energy sales provided revenue for 36 percent of Russia’s released 2022 budget, according to a Reuters report from earlier this year.

Pisarska said the Russian leader has been steering his country into “self-isolation” since 2008 to consolidate power. A large part of self-isolation is playing out in domestic propaganda to build support for the regime’s war, which it calls a “special military operation,” and in other propaganda denigrating Ukraine, Poland and other eastern and central European nations as ruled by Nazis. The unrelenting stream of stories and postings on these points also makes the Russian audience more accepting of crimes and atrocities committed by its soldiers, she added.

For years, the Russian public has been fed a steady diet that “mass genocide has been carried out in Donbas” by the Ukrainians. Days before the invasion, Putin recognized two provinces in Donbas, where there are large numbers of Russian speakers, as independent of Kyiv. Separatists in the two provinces, backed by the Kremlin, have been engaged in a civil war with the Ukraine government for eight years.

The secretary general of the United Nations said Russia’s claim violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity as a nation.

When the disinformation and propaganda turn outward, Pisarska said it plays on nationalist feelings that oppose allowing more Ukrainian refugees to enter Poland and other NATO and European Union countries.

“You see that in the comment lines” on social media, and this digital campaign “never stops,” despite constant monitoring by social media firms, said Marta Poslad, director of central and eastern European public policy for Google. “The technology is constantly changing,” and that makes removing hated-filled disinformation even more difficult, she added.

Despite the Russian propaganda aimed at Poland’s nationalists, Brzezinski called Warsaw “a humanitarian superpower.” He cited citizens driving to the border to greet and help refugees and others opening their doors to house them as examples of how ordinary Poles have responded to the invasion. Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s mayor, estimated that the Polish capital was now housing 300,000 Ukrainian refugees.

New Navy Unmanned Command Will Send 4 Experimental Large USVs to RIMPAC

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A quartet of experimental unmanned surface vessels will set sail for Hawaii this summer for a test of a new unit focused on ramping up the Navy’s use of drones to bolster the surface fleet’s lethality. RIMPAC 2022 will be a high-profile mission for Unmanned Surface Vessel Division 1, […]

Sea Hunter sits pierside at Naval Base San Diego, Calif., during the Unmanned Surface Vessel Division (USDIV) One Establishment ceremony on May 13, 2022. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A quartet of experimental unmanned surface vessels will set sail for Hawaii this summer for a test of a new unit focused on ramping up the Navy’s use of drones to bolster the surface fleet’s lethality.

RIMPAC 2022 will be a high-profile mission for Unmanned Surface Vessel Division 1, which includes the trimarans USV Sea Hunter and USV Seahawk along with two Ghost Fleet support vessels Nomad and Ranger.

USVDIV-1 was formally established May 13 at Port Hueneme, Calif., under San Diego-based Surface Development Squadron 1, with the primary mission to “accelerate the delivery of credible and reliable unmanned systems in conjunction with increasingly capable manned platforms into the fleet,” Cmdr. Jerry Daley, who took the reins as its first commanding officer, said in a Navy statement.

Members of the new unit have eyes on the biennial RIMPAC – set to run from late June into early August with 27 partner nations, 42 ships, five submarines, more than 170 aircraft and nearly 25,000 participants – as the next fleet activity to help determine and define how the capabilities of the medium-sized surface drones might augment the manned and unmanned fleet.

“All four ships will be dispersed, and we’ll be working with different task force commanders during all three phases of the Rim of the Pacific exercise, both from a command-and-control standpoint and also exercising our capabilities from a payload standpoint,” Daley said Monday during a media roundtable at SURFDEVRON’s headquarters in San Diego to discuss the new unit.Daley said his staff already has integrated with San Diego-based U.S. 3rd Fleet staff, who are in charge of RIMPAC.

“Part of our charter is figuring how we integrate with a manned force,” he said, speaking from his Port Hueneme, Calif., command.

Experimentation conducted during RIMPAC will enable USVDIV-1 to collect data to learn more about the vessels’ requirements, he noted, and ultimately help understand more about “how we integrate with the fleet moving forward for USV,” Daley said.

USVDIV-1 will be focused “exclusively” on working with USVs, said Capt. Jeff Heames, who became SURFDEVRON-1 commodore in March 2021 and last week handed over command to Capt. Shea Thompson. The new unit will advance the work that SURFDEVRON-1 has so far done and ramping up experimentation and testing with the surface fleet and providing input to the Navy’s unmanned program office.

“USVDIV-1 will be a catalyst for innovation as we employ unmanned surface capabilities in the Pacific Fleet,” Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, Naval Surface Force commander, said in a Navy statement about the new unit. “The implementation of unmanned systems will increase decision speed and lethality to enhance our warfighting advantage.”

With its base at Port Hueneme, USVDIV-1 can tap and share testing and evaluation facilities used by the Navy’s unmanned undersea vehicles with Submarine Development Squadron 5, officials said. The Navy has completed and issued the concept of operations for medium and large USVs, and the CONOPS will likely be updated annually as the new unit progresses on experimentation and evaluation, officials said.

Growing the USV fleet 

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Navy envisions a hybrid fleet with unmanned vessels acting as an adjunct “shooter” outfitted with a magazine or providing sensors to augment manned ships with a surface action group (SAG). In such scenarios, the human would provide the command-and-control for a SAG with adjunct sensors and magazines in USVs organized around an amphibious ship or littoral combat ship, for example.

“We’re at the ground floor of discovering what we think we can do and what we think we need,” Heames said.
“If we have more USVs, we can do more experiments and we can operate with more fleet activities and we can gather more data on performance… [By doing so] we can begin to scale our learning and get faster understanding in terms of what payloads we think are most viable, in terms of how much more safe we can be, how much we can sense our environment, in terms of the sensors that we’re using.”

The pace of experimentation and testing will quicken with the recent addition of the two OSVs, obtained in March via the Navy’s Strategic Capabilities Office’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program. Those OSVs went through a retrofit that enable autonomous operations and equipping of experimental payloads.

A Ghost Fleet Overlord test vessel takes part in a capstone demonstration during the conclusion of Phase I of the program in September. Two existing commercial fast supply vessels were converted into unmanned surface vessels (USVs) for Overlord testing, which will play a vital role in informing the Navy’s new classes of USVs. US Navy photo.

“We expect to get three additional USVs in the next couple of years,” Heames said. Two will come from the Ghost Fleet Overlord program “and the third is being purposed-built as a prototype, from the ground up.”

“We’re growing – so that means more opportunities to take these things to sea, more opportunities to learn about how we need to operate with them with our manned Navy,” he said. “And now that we have a USV Division – command entirely focused on USVs – we think that opportunity is going to grow for us to learn more about how USVs are going to fit into the manned fleet.”

“I see some tremendous opportunity to increase the lethality of our surface forces, with some of the payloads… the operating modes that we are exploring,” he added.

By the end of 2022, Daley said he expects to have about 100 people in the unit. The plan is to increase the size of the unit with about 175 sailors by the end of 2023, he added.

Sailors will come from a variety of rates, including operation specialists, quartermasters, hull maintenance technicians, machinist’s mates, enginemen, and information and electronic technicians. The division’s surface warfare officers, he said, “will be controlling and working through both the autonomy and the operationalization of how the unmanned ships will interact with the fleet.”

Testing unique prototypes

Seahawk USV. Leidos Image

Over the past year, SURFDEVRON had been focused on “taking the vessels to sea and understanding the why behind the decisions the vessels make, the autonomy decisions that are being made – from a maneuver perspective[…] especially in the context of operating with our manned fleet,” Heames said.

“The focus was, learning how you can work together, where you would need to control one vessel or have situational awareness of what’s happening in an environment. So that’s been a real focus of effort. We’ve made some progress in that. I think the biggest progress is in understanding the data and having a pipeline to receive the data, a mechanism to store it and some professionals to do the data analytics and understand how we performed, so we can make adjustments on the next activity going out to sea.”

“We’re going to continue to do that, certainly for the next year. The big advantage is we can do more of it, with different vessels,” he said. “We also have different autonomy functions that we’re looking to advance,” so a USV at sea with instruments that sense the environment, such as radar or electro-optic sensors “understands what it’s looking at.”

That information then goes into an algorithm or system “that will make a decision on that information,” he said, but much remains to be learned when the USVs go to sea. How good are those sensors? Are there ways we need to fuse the data to better understand it?”

Each USV will be “unique” prototypes, equipped with different suites of sensors, Heames said. The plan is to put the vessels in different environments, factoring variables like weather or operations with ships or without ships, “and then go back and do the homework on which ones are performing better and make adjustments to it.”

With the capability of vessels operating in autonomous mode, where it can make decisions on its own, Heames noted, “it’s very important for us to understand why it makes certain decisions over others. So the data pipeline and the analytics decisions, either during or[…] very quickly after the fact, are critical so we can understand and make adjustments.”

He added: “We are absolutely oriented toward continuing experiments and working with the program office to better understand what the capabilities are that we need.”

Thompson takes SURFDEVRON-1 command five years after he first began working on Sea Hunter in 2017. “The progress that’s been made… is readily apparent,” he said. When he first landed eyes on the USV, “I was excited. I saw the potential of what an unmanned surface vessel can bring to enhancing the lethality of the fleet.”

Back then, remotely operating the vessel with payloads was a big step, “and “and the concepts have matured,” he said. “That was a big win back in 2017. Now we’re way past that,” with improved autonomous piloting a big advancement.

Thompson said his first exposure to USVs was during a 2017 exercise when he got to operate Sea Hunter remotely while aboard USS Sampson (DDG-102).

“I’m sitting there on the joystick, remotely controlling a surface vessel,” he said. “I may have been the first uniformed guy to actually do it. So as I come back here, I’m even more excited about what the future holds.”

 

VIDEO: LCS USS Montgomery Fires Hellfire Missiles in Land Attack Test

An Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship launched three Longbow Hellfire missiles that hit a land-based target in a demonstration last week, the Navy announced. USS Montgomery (LCS-8) launched the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missiles in the Pacific Ocean, the service said in a news release. The missiles, with a range of about five miles, make up the […]

An AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missile launches from the Surface-To-Surface Missile Module (SSMM) aboard Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ship USS Montgomery (LCS-8) on May 12, 2022. US Navy Photo

An Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship launched three Longbow Hellfire missiles that hit a land-based target in a demonstration last week, the Navy announced.

USS Montgomery (LCS-8) launched the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missiles in the Pacific Ocean, the service said in a news release. The missiles, with a range of about five miles, make up the LCS surface-to-surface mission module, one of the three original components of the LCS mission package.

“This test proved the critical next step in increasing lethality of the Littoral Combat Ship,” Cmdr. Dustin Lonero, the commanding officer of the ship, said in a Navy news release. “Using our speed and shallow draft, we are now uniquely optimized to bring this level of firepower extremely close to shore in support of our warfighters and operators on the beach.”

The Navy in 2019 wrapped up the structural testing required to ensure the LCS could fire the Hellfire missiles, USNI News reported at the time.

“The Longbow Hellfire missile already plays a key role in the up-gunned surface warfare mission package,” the Navy said in the news release. “Originally fielded by both variants of the littoral combat ship in 2019, the missile has repeatedly demonstrated the capability quickly defeat multiple swarming Fast Attack Craft/Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FAC/FIAC). Each LCS is capable carrying twenty-four missiles.”

The Hellfires replaced the Navy-Army joint Non-Line of Sight Launch missile system (N-LOS) that Navy officials initially planned to put onto the LCS in 2014, USNI News reported at the time.

VIDEO: Navy Commissions Destroyer USS Frank E. Petersen Jr.

The Navy commissioned its 71st Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Saturday in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday. USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG-121), which is named in honor of Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen, the first Black Marine aviator and three-star general, will be based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The nearly 9,500-ton ship was commissioned in front of […]

The Navy’s newest Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG-121) awaits to be commissioned in Charleston, S.C., May 14, 2022. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

The Navy commissioned its 71st Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Saturday in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday.

USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG-121), which is named in honor of Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen, the first Black Marine aviator and three-star general, will be based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

The nearly 9,500-ton ship was commissioned in front of an audience that included both Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday.

“It’s fitting that a name synonymous with service and sacrifice be emblazoned on the steel of this American warship,” Gilday said at the ceremony, according to a Navy news release. “Sailors aboard this mighty warship will deploy wherever, whenever needed, with General Petersen’s fighting spirit and tenacity, for generations to come.”

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, as well as George Nungesser, the vice president of program management with HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding, were also in attendance.

Frank E. Petersen Jr. left Ingalls Shipbuilding in April to head to Charleston for the commissioning. It is the 33rd destroyer Ingalls built for the Navy. The shipbuilder is currently contracted to build five more as well, according to an HII news release.

The ship was sponsored by D’Arcy Neller, wife of Gen. Robert Neller, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, and Alicia Petersen, the wife of Frank Petersen.

Alicia Petersen died in September 2021 and was represented at the commissioning by her daughters, who gave the “Man our ship and bring her to life” order with Neller.

The crew of Frank E. Petersen Jr., led by Cmdr. Daniel Hancock, will give the ship its life, Neller said in her remarks.

“The namesake of this ship was a warrior,” she said, according to the news release. “He always went to the sound of the guns; he was always prepared and smart about the risks he took. You all need to be the same. Always be prepared. Work hard and when the time comes, you will be ready to go into the jaw of the tiger.”

Petersen served 38 years in the Marine Corps before retiring in 1988, according to the release. Among his accolades are the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Navy Predicts Challenging Future Recruiting Environment, On Target to Hit Retention Goals

The Navy’s latest budget proposal will cut more than a thousand sailors from the sea service, a reflection of a difficult recruiting environment that defense officials predict will only get worse. The Navy should make its recruiting goals for active-duty sailors this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told Congress on Wednesday. But […]

Sailors assigned to USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) prepare to re-attach the starboard anchor chain following the completion of preventive maintenance on March 30, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Navy’s latest budget proposal will cut more than a thousand sailors from the sea service, a reflection of a difficult recruiting environment that defense officials predict will only get worse.

The Navy should make its recruiting goals for active-duty sailors this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told Congress on Wednesday. But in the long term the Navy expects to see more challenges in meeting those numbers, especially when it comes to recruiting sailors with cyber expertise, Gilday said.

By the end of September 2023, the Navy’s end strength is asking for a decrease of more than 1,300, according to projections released in the sea service’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget request.

The Navy’s end strength plans to be relatively stagnant between FY 2021 and 2023, with a slight reduction each year. As of September 2021, the Navy’s end strength was 347,677, with an average strength of 352,633, according to the budget projections.

This September, the end strength is predicted to decrease to 347,484, with an average strength of 351,177.

One of the reasons for the decrease in both average and end strength is trouble recruiting, a problem affecting all military branches, not just the Navy, its top leaders told the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.

The services are struggling to recruit in a competitive marketplace, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros testified in an April 27 hearing.

In order to combat the market, the Department of Defense planned for a 4.6 percent pay raise, which will help the economic security of service members, Cisneros told senators.

The Navy is beginning to see more competition from the private sector, with larger companies offering incentives that match what the military offers recruits, Vice Adm. John Nowell, chief of naval personnel, told the senators. This comes from a higher rate of unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While we are trending to meet our FY 22 accession mission at the aggregate level, we will do so by reducing delayed entry program from historic norms, which will be challenging to sustain to remain competitive,” Nowell testified.

In FY 2021, the Navy surpassed its recruiting goals for the active-duty enlisted component but struggled with reservists, according to data provided by Capt. Dave Hecht, spokesperson for the chief of naval personnel.

The goal for recruiting was 33,400 for active-duty enlisted personnel. The Navy enlisted 33,559 sailors. However, for reservists, the Navy brought in 5,631 recruits, falling short of the 6,425 target.

The Navy failed to meet its goal for active-duty officers, commissioning 2,508 when its target was 2,522. It also failed to hit the target of 1,319 for reserve officers, only bringing in 866.
The competition for the Navy is two-fold, said Cmdr. Dave Benham, spokesperson for Navy Recruiting Command.

Sailors in recruit division 012 present class and 2d Marine Division (MARDIV) guidons in the USS Midway Ceremonial Drill Hall during their boot camp graduation at Navy Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill., on Dec. 10, 2021. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

To try to compete, the Navy is offering a minimum enlistment bonus of $25,000, with up to $50,000 for certain jobs, Benham told USNI News in an email.

“While service is not just about the money, we feel these bonuses, taken with existing Navy benefits and the inherent satisfaction of adventure, global travel and service to our country in the world’s finest Navy will give us an advantage in recruiting top talent to lead us forward,” Benham said.

The Navy also achieved it goal for enlisted active-duty sailors in FY 2020, but did not meet the goal for active-duty officer or reserve enlisted sailors or officers.

Other branches are also offering enlistment bonuses, including the Army and the Air Force.

Some jobs can earn soldiers up to $40,000 in bonuses, with additional bonuses, including for shipping out early, possible. The Air Force is offering up to $50,000 in bonuses, although the high bonuses are for explosive ordnance disposal and special warfare enlistees.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is aware of the recruiting challenges facing the military, including the amount of jobs present in the American economy, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a May 5 press briefing.

“The propensity to serve is not always as strong as we’d like it to be, and quite frankly, an uncomfortably large number of young Americans aren’t able to meet the entry requirements, Kirby said. “Then add to that COVID, which impacted our recruiters’ ability to get face-to-face contact with young men and women. All of that has combined to make it a challenging recruiting environment.”

Sailors assigned to the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6), stand in formation during a dress white uniform inspection on the ship’s flight deck on May 4, 2022. US Navy Photo

Although the Navy is predicting a decrease in both end strength and average strength, the sea service did relatively well in recruiting and retention during the pandemic years.

A RAND report found that the Navy increased its end strength and retention in FY 2020 compared to FY 2019, despite the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the number of enlistment contracts did drop, as it did with the other services.

While the pandemic led to higher unemployment rates, which usually lead to more military recruitment, military branches were unable to recruit in person, the RAND report noted.

The drop in enlistment contracts but increased end strength led the RAND researchers to theorize that the Navy and other branches focused on retention in order to address end strength.

The Navy was the only branch in the military that saw increased accession between FY 2019 and FY 2020, according to the RAND report.

The Navy could rely on retention again in order to fill the fleet. In FY 2021, the Navy had a 67 percent re-enlistment rate for sailors with six years of service or fewer, 68 percent for six to 10 years of service and 85 percent for 10 to 14 years, according to a January NAVADMIN that details retention goals.

All groups surpassed the benchmarks for retention.

For FY 2022, the re-enlistment rates depend on assignment, according to the memo. For example, aircraft carriers have retention goals of 64 percent for sailors with six years of service or fewer, 75 percent for six to 10 years and 90 percent for 10 to 14 years.

A sailor looks out at the South China Sea from the hangar bay aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on Jan. 30, 2022. US Navy Photo

Destroyer assignments have slightly higher retention goals at 72 percent for sailors with six years of service or fewer, 79 percent for six to 10 years and 94 percent for 10 to 14 years.

As of March, the Navy is exceeding its retention goals for sailors with up to six years of service, Hecht said in an email. The service has also retained 9,259 sailors, ahead of its 8,716 goal.

The Navy is also on target to meet its retention goals for sailors with six to 10 years of service and 10 to 14 years of service, Hecht said.

“We are confident that we will attain the overall annual retention goals,” Hecht told USNI News.

Chinese Navy Ship Operating Off of Australia, Canberra Says

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intelligence ship is currently operating off the north-west shelf of Australia, the Australian Department of Defence said Friday. Australia’s DoD identified the vessel as China’s Dongdiao-class auxiliary intelligence ship Haiwangxing (792) and released imagery and video of the ship. A graphic of Haiwangxing’s voyage showed […]

People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Intelligence Collection Vessel Haiwangxing operating off the north-west shelf of Australia. Australian Department of Defence Photo

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intelligence ship is currently operating off the north-west shelf of Australia, the Australian Department of Defence said Friday.

Australia’s DoD identified the vessel as China’s Dongdiao-class auxiliary intelligence ship Haiwangxing (792) and released imagery and video of the ship.

A graphic of Haiwangxing’s voyage showed the ship crossed Australia’s exclusive economic zone on the morning of May 6. On Sunday, it was approximately 70 nautical miles off the Harold E. Holt Communications Station, in Exmouth, Western Australia, while a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft monitored the ship.

Harold E. Holt Communications Station provides Very Low Frequency (VLF) communication transmission services for Australian, the United States and Australian-allied submarines.

The Chinese ship continued sailing southwards, and on Monday, it was 150 nautical miles off Exmouth while an RAAF P-8 tracked the intelligence ship. At the same time, HMAS Perth (FFH157) sailed out from port to monitor Haiwangxing but subsequently turned back because the Chinese ship changed its sailing direction on Tuesday morning. Haiwangxing turned north, sailing at a speed of six knots, 125 nautical miles from Exmouth. An RAAF P-8 and an Australian Border Force (ABF) Dash-8 maritime surveillance aircraft monitored the ship.

On Wednesday, Haiwangxing sailed northeast at 12 knots, with the ship approaching as close as 50 nautical miles of the of Harold E. Holt Communication Station, while an RAAF P-8, ABF Dash-8 and ABF patrol vessel ABFC Cape Sorell monitored. Haiwangxing was last spotted on Friday at 6 a.m. local time, approximately 250 nautical miles northwest of Broome Western Australia. An RAAF P-8 and a Maritime Border Command Dash-8 maritime surveillance aircraft monitored the ship on Thursday.

“Australia respects the right of all states to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace, just as we expect others to respect our right to do the same. Defence will continue to monitor the ship’s operation in our maritime approaches,” the Australian DoD said in the news release.

Movements of PLAN Dongdiao AGI-792 near Australia May 8-13 2022. Australian Department of Defence Photo

Meanwhile, over in the Philippine Sea, the PLAN’s CNS Liaoning (16) carrier strike group continues flight operations, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s daily news releases this week. Liaoning; Type 055 destroyer CNS Nanchang (101); Type 052D destroyers CNS Xining (117), CNS Urumqi (118) and CNS Chengdu (120); Type 052C destroyer CNS Zhengzhou (151); Type 054A frigate CNS Xiangtan (531); and Type 901 fast combat support ship CNS Hulunhu (901) sailed into the Pacific Ocean via the Miyako Strait earlier this month.

The carrier and ships in its CSG performed a series of flight operations four days in a row this week. On 9 a.m. Sunday local time, Liaoning, the two Type 052D destroyers and Hulunhu were sighted 160 kilometers south of Ishigaki Island conducting flight operations with its embarked J-15 fighter aircraft and Z-18 helicopters from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., according to news releases from Japan’s Joint Staff Office.

On Monday, the same ships were seen at 10 a.m. sailing 200 kilometers south of Ishigaki Island, performing flight operations from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Tuesday at 9 a.m., the group was sailing 310 kilometers south of Ishigaki Island, performing flight operations from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Wednesday at 9 a.m., Liaoning and two Type 052D destroyers were seen 160 kilometers south of Ishigaki Island, again performing flight operations from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer helicopter carrier JS Izumo (DDH-183) has tracked the Liaoning carrier strike group since May 2. Japanese destroyer JS Suzutsuki (DD-117) took over the task of tracking the Liaoning carrier group on Tuesday.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy J-15 carrier fighter takes off from Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (16) on May 7, 2022. Japanese MoD Photo

Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fighter aircraft scrambled each day in response to the J-15 launches, according to the news release. In a Tuesday press conference, Japan Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the Chinese carried out a total of 100 sorties with its J-15s and Z-18s from Liaoning between May 3 and May 8.

While the activities of the PLAN carrier group were likely aimed at improving its aircraft carriers’ operational capabilities and its ability to carry out operations away from home, Kishi said Japan is concerned about the operations given that they were happening close to the Ryuku Islands and Taiwan. The Japanese Ministry of Defense will continue to monitor such activities, he said.

The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is also operating in the Philippine Sea. Earlier this week, the CSG conducted deterrence missions in the Philippine Sea by performing long-range maritime strike with refueling help from Pacific Air Forces KC-135 Stratotankers, according to a U.S. 7th Fleet news release issued Friday.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Tophatters” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14, prepares to make an arrested landing on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) in the Philippine Sea on May 12, 2022. U.S. Navy Photo

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), destroyers USS Spruance (DDG-111) and USS Dewey (DDG-105), and cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG-53) also performed multi-domain training to defend the carrier, according to the news release.

“Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is a powerful presence in the Philippine Sea that serves as a deterrent to aggressive or malign actors and supports a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Rear Adm. J.T. Anderson, the commander of carrier strike group Three, said in the release. “There is no better way to strengthen our combat-credible capabilities than to work alongside other joint forces to demonstrate our commitment to sovereignty, the region, and a rules-based international order.”