On Thursday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing focused the recent series of deadly accidents involving Seventh Fleet vessels. Four non-combat casualties have occurred so far this year, including the collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, which resulted in the death of 17 sailors and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
In testimony, GAO director for defense force structure John H. Pendleton acknowledged that the exact causes of the accidents is not yet known, but he pointed to "unrelenting operational demand and a limited supply of ships" as a likely factor. "The Navy has been warning for some time that they are keeping a pace that is unsustainable," he said – a pace that includes extended deployments, deferred maintenance and 100-plus hour days for sailors.
But this is not the only problem for the surface warfare community. "Our work has also spotlighted risk in the way the Navy is managing [these] demands," he said. "Just over two years ago we published a report on the risks of increasing reliance on overseas basing of ships. In that report we found that ships based in Japan do not have dedicated training periods like U.S.-based ships." Without dedicated time for training, sailors have had to learn when time allows. "In fact we were told that the overseas-based ships were so busy that they had to 'train on the margins' . . . that they had to squeeze training in when they could," Pendleton said.
Pendleton noted that the Navy and the Department of Defense have been aware of these risks for years. "We assess the Navy is well aware of the risk associated with overseas home porting. The decision to accept these risks was ultimately based on the operational decision to provide increased presence to meet combatant commander requirements," DoD wrote in response to GAO's first report in 2015.
In a follow-up report prepared for the hearing, GAO found that the problem has worsened. As of this June, about one third of the warfare certifications for cruiser and destroyer crews based in Japan had expired. Eight of 11 vessels had expired seamanship certifications.
GAO also found that the Navy's inability to complete maintenance on time has contributed to reduced readiness. From 2011-2016, maintenance overruns on 107 surface ships resulted in 6,600 lost operational days (or over 18 years of sea time). Extended deployments and deferred maintenance have contributed to these difficulties, as more work needs to be done when the vessels return for yard periods. In particular, Pendleton pointed to an increased number of breakdowns and maintenance issues for overseas-based vessels on long deployments.
The Navy's representatives assured the committee that the service will resolve the deficiencies behind the recent accidents. "You have my promise that we will get to the bottom of these mishaps. We will leave no stone unturned," said Adm. Bill Moran, the vice chief of naval operations.