SWO Boss: Surface Fleet Reforms See Positive Results Five Years After Fatal Collisions

Surface warfare reforms crafted to improve mariner skills and manage demand for ships are trickling into the fleet five years after two fatal collisions in the Western Pacific forced the Navy to retool how the service trains the surface fleet. Multiple investigations and criminal prosecutions found that basic failures in seamanship and ship handling led […]

Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander, Naval Surface Force, speaks with junior officers at the Mariner Skills Training Center, Pacific (MSTCPAC) on May 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

Surface warfare reforms crafted to improve mariner skills and manage demand for ships are trickling into the fleet five years after two fatal collisions in the Western Pacific forced the Navy to retool how the service trains the surface fleet.

Multiple investigations and criminal prosecutions found that basic failures in seamanship and ship handling led to the June 17, 2017, early morning collision between USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan. Seven sailors died.

Two months later, a misunderstanding of a newly installed throttle control system led to USS John McCain (DDG-56) drifting out of a ship separation scheme outside of Singapore and colliding with merchant tanker Alnic MC. Ten sailors died.

Undated photo of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) pier side in Japan shortly after the collision. US Navy Photo

Two subsequent Navy reviews into the fatal collisions – and two other cruiser incidents in 2017 – found systemic problems in basic ship handling and navigation in the surface force, with crews that worked too much and slept too little to meet an unrelenting demand for forces.

The reviews generated a list of more than 100 recommendations for improvements to training and procedures, resulting in a restructuring of the career path for surface warfare officers and a pledge from the Navy to Congress to have a minimum amount of manning aboard surface ships.

Five years following the collision of Fitzgerald and Crystal, the surface community is still working through the recommendations and is to see incremental, but tangible, improvements in the health of the surface force, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, Naval Surface Forces commander, told USNI News this week.

“We remain on a positive trajectory. I do believe that, based on some good evidence, that maritime skills competency has definitely improved,” Kitchener said.

On Shore

Students in the Littoral Combat Ship Officer of the Deck course at the Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS), practice pierwork in a USS Independence (LCS-2) class simulator in 2020. US Navy Photo

The reforms following the 2017 collisions follow two decades of shortened training for sailors and the surface force skipping maintenance during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2003, the same year the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Navy cut the 16-week training at Surface Warfare Officer’s School and relied on new ensigns squeezing in training via CD-ROMs between schedules to learn the mariner skills. In 2012, the Navy restored an eight-week SWOS course.

Early recommendations from the investigation, partially based on the failures of the bridge crews on Fitzgerald to adhere to the basic rules of the road, called for the Navy to beef up early training for new ensigns and expand SWOS.

That included two officer of the deck (OOD) training periods that teach junior officers to run the bridge using high-fidelity simulators.

In 2019, the Navy required all new surface warfare officers following their first schoolhouse – the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) – to complete an officer of the deck course. The course grew from four weeks to six last year. New SWOs have 772 hours of simulator training to learn basic mariner skills. The time is double the previous requirement, Kitchener said. SWOs take a second OOD assessment following their first division officer tour to gauge their knowledge of maritime rules of the road.

“These structured courses, individual courses like OOD phase one and two, coupled with fleet … training, where you bring a ship team over and they train on the waterfront and evolutions with the quartermasters and everybody in the full mission bridge, that’s reinforcing all that individual training,” Kitchener said.
“I’m pretty confident to say that our division officer scores have gone up.”

Students at Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) train on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Full Mission Bridge (FMB) simulator in 2016. US Navy Photo

The assessments are part of a larger reform to the SWO career path instituted in 2018 under previous SWO Boss retired Vice Adm. Richard Brown that created ten pass-or-fail assessments throughout a surface officer’s career up to when they take command of a ship.

“There was a significant investment in trainers to give everybody the tools to train. It’s not only improved, I think JO ship handling, but their ability to use some of the tools on the ship … the different radars,” he said.
“By adding in the rigor where we have the assessments, we have 10 of them, and there are four no-gos built into it. If you don’t pass, you don’t go to the next wicket. That’s provided that rigor, certainly we’ve seen some attrition there.”

Last year, the GAO found that while the improvements have helped, officers leave the service at a higher rate than aviators or submariners.

“SWOs had shorter average careers and higher separation rates compared with officers in similar U.S. Navy communities, despite the U.S. Navy’s investments in SWO training,” reads the report.

At Sea

Ensign Sofia Bliek, from Vernon, Conn., on Feb. 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

As investigators looked at the collisions’ underlying causes, the Navy found that there were manning gaps and degraded equipment on many ships deployed to the Pacific.

Following the collisions, the Navy guaranteed Congress that only combat-ready ships would deploy.

“What does a combat-ready ship mean? That means ships deploy and leave no redundancy at the pier, that everything works on that ship the moment they deploy,” then-SWO Boss Brown told USNI News in 2019.
“We’re going to deploy our ships fully certified, fully manned at 92/95 (fit/fill).”

Maintaining the Navy’s measure for making sure qualified sailors are installed on the right jobs, known as fit, and that there are enough crew aboard, known as fill, has been a struggle for the service.

To meet the demand, the service pulls the sailors with the Navy Enlisted Classifications (NECs) it needs from ships in maintenance and other non-deployed duty stations.

“We are doing it, it remains a challenge, it remains a little bit of a friction point because I worry about ships, taking that manpower off in the maintenance phase, particularly critical NECs,” Kitchener said.

Quartermaster 2nd Class, from Corpus Christi, Texas, shoots a sunline with a sextant to take a bearing from the bridgewing aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105) while conducting routine underway operations on Jan. 30, 2022. US Navy Photo

In Fiscal Year 2020, the Navy moved 1,760 sailors for temporary additional duty (TEMADD) to fill gaps in critical NECs on deploying ships, Kitchener said in January.

To blunt the effects, SURFOR last year launched the data-driven crewing model Surface Manning Experience (SURFMEX) that tracked six critical NECs – sonar technician, Aegis fire controlman, gas turbine system technician (electrical and mechanical), quartermaster and engineman – to prevent churn in ship manning, according to Seapower.

The SURMEX program was showing good early results but “we remain challenged with our TEMADDs and it puts a strain on our sailors,” Kitchener said.
“We’re looking at doing some other pilots [to try] to reduce TEMADDs, looking at other ways we can man.”

One pilot program will remove the crew from a destroyer during its maintenance phase while training on shore until the ship is ready for training ahead of deployments.

Maintaining the 92/95 crewing standard “still remains a strain on the force because of that tax we pay on ships in the maintenance phase,” he said.

Culture

Ens. Hazel Acosta, assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105), observes the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65), while standing conning officer during Visual Information (VI) drills between the two ships. U.S. Navy Photo

Perhaps the trickiest issue that faced the service is solving the underlying “zero-defect” culture problem that creates officers who shun risk and is quick to punish minor mistakes.

“I don’t think there is a zero-defect mentality. In our force today. Most of the time, when we’re relieving people, it’s usually for toxic leadership issues, things like that, not necessarily competency, and we’re learning from the mistakes,” Kitchener said.

Since the collisions, the surface fleet has adopted parts of naval aviation’s debriefing methodology that encourages critical assessment in debriefs to identify mistakes, Kitchener said.

“You pre-brief, brief and then afterward you do a debrief and we’ve been collecting data on that since the collisions. It’s pretty good. It gets bigger every year, the critiques that we do and that open discussion, so I’m pretty happy with that,” he said.
“The other way we try to get at culture is trying to increase that transparency and trust. That again is being able to discuss things that have gone wrong and how do we overcome that?”

Key to the culture change is predicting problems before they happen. Kitchener has touted his command’s use of data from across the command to create a better understanding of readiness in ships and personnel.

Ens. Stephen Hess uses a telescopic alidade in the pilot house of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG-56), as it transits behind USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) in the Adriatic Sea on June 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

“We’ve driven it towards being a learning organization where previously we weren’t necessarily. We were kind of reactive, and now we’re trying to be more proactive. I would tell you, we’re not completely there,” he said.

Key for Kitchener is to keep the reform momentum to build on the incremental successes.

“Vigilance remains the term. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve invested a lot and we just got to keep it all moving forward,” he said.
“We’ve all got to be making sure that we’re following the rules and the procedures we put in place. And I think for the most part, we’re doing better at that oversight role than we were back in 2017.”

USS John S. McCain Conducts Second FONOp This Week, This Time Off Vietnamese Islands

Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) conducted its second freedom of navigation operation this week, this time challenging excessive maritime claims by Vietnam. McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms near Vietnam in the vicinity of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea” in a Dec. 24 operation, U.S. 7th Fleet announced. “The […]

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) transits through South China Sea while conducting routine underway operations on Dec. 22, 2020. McCain is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. US Navy photo.

Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) conducted its second freedom of navigation operation this week, this time challenging excessive maritime claims by Vietnam. McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms near Vietnam in the vicinity of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea” in a Dec. 24 operation, U.S. 7th Fleet announced. “The ship conducted normal operations within Vietnam’s claimed territorial seas to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access and navigational freedoms consistent with international law.” On Dec. 22, McCain conducted a similar operation near the Spratly Islands, which China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim. And on Dec. 21, another Japan-based U.S. destroyer, USS Mustin (DDG-89), conducted a Taiwan Strait transit to counter China’s claims to the strait. “U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity. All of our operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows– regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” reads the 7th Fleet statement. The U.S. has long conducted these freedom of navigation operations, or FONOps, in the South China Sea, though the Defense Department has over recent years taken different approaches to talking about them publicly based on the administration’s position on China and other political factors. This year, though, the Pentagon has been more forthright about discussing the many FONOps happening in the region, which not only push back against China and, on some occasions, Russia, but also against partners like Vietnam. The following is the full statement from U.S. 7th Fleet: SOUTH CHINA SEA – On December 24, USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) asserted navigational rights and freedoms near Vietnam in the vicinity of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea. The ship conducted normal operations within Vietnam’s claimed territorial seas to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access and navigational freedoms consistent with international law. U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity. All of our operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows– regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events. The international law of sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for the certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The United States upholds these rights and freedoms as a matter of principle to preserve the freedom of the seas that is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity. As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are consistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all states, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all.

Destroyer USS John S. McCain Performs South China Sea FONOP

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer performed a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea on Tuesday, the Navy announced. USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) operated near the Spratly Islands, which Taiwan, China and Vietnam have all staked a claim to, U.S. 7th Fleet said in a news release. “Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in […]

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) transits through Peter the Great Bay while conducting routine underway operations on Nov. 24, 2020. U.S. Navy Photo

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer performed a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea on Tuesday, the Navy announced.

USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) operated near the Spratly Islands, which Taiwan, China and Vietnam have all staked a claim to, U.S. 7th Fleet said in a news release.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the Navy said.

Littoral Combat Ship USS Montgomery (LCS-8) in January of this year performed the first FONOP of 2020 when it sailed through waters near the Spratly Islands, USNI News previously reported.

The Navy has conducted multiple FONOPS in the South China Sea this year, as the U.S. maintains a steady presence in the waters as a hedge against China.

“China, Vietnam, and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States –including their warships –enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea,” reads the 7th Fleet statement.
“The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law, so the United States challenged these requirements. By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.”

Last month, McCain performed a FONOP in the waters near Peter the Great Bay, a gulf off of Russia’s Pacific coast in the Sea of Japan. The Navy at the time refuted a Russian claim that one of its destroyers drove McCain out of the waters.

McCain’s FONOP comes several days after destroyer USS Mustin (DDG-89) moved through the Taiwan Strait. Following Mustin’s transit, China’s new carrier on Sunday performed a transit through the strait while heading to training in the South China Sea, according to a Reuters report.