Washington – Navy officials said pressure to increase the number of ships deployed overseas has hurt readiness and training levels, and those problems are getting worse.
Seventeen sailors were killed this summer when two Navy destroyers, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain, collided with merchant ships in the waters off Japan and Singapore. Two sailors from Connecticut were among the dead.
“We ask these forward-deployed ships to do difficult work that is oftentimes not well understood by the public at large,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, at a joint hearing by the House Armed Services’ readiness and sea power subcommittees.
Navy witnesses said the majority of ships operating in the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, including the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain, weren’t certified to conduct basic operations at sea related to war-fighting.
“We are below the standards we should accept,” said Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of Naval Operations.
Moran said he “made the assumption” the ships and subs of the 7th Fleet were in top shape because it was constantly deployed in the Pacific.
“I made the wrong assumption,” he concluded.
The collision last month of the USS John McCain and a merchant ship in the waters near Singapore claimed the life of U.S. Navy Electronics Technician 2nd Class Petty Officer Dustin Doyon, 26, of Suffield. The collision tore a hole in the ship’s rear hull and flooded adjacent compartments, including the communications room.
The casket bearing Doyon’s body is expected to arrive at Bradley International Airport on Friday and be transported for internment in Suffield.
The USS John McCain accident was the fourth involving a U.S. warship deployed by the Pacific-based 7th Fleet this year and the second fatal collision.
Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc “Tan” Truong Huynh, 25, of Watertown, was one of seven sailors who died in a June 17 collision off the coast of Japan between the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship.
“I think we can all agree that our nation failed our sailors and their families,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., the chairman of the sea power panel.
Moran said all 17 sailors killed in the collisions were promoted a grade posthumously in recognition of their service.
John Pendleton of the Government Accountability Office said a decision in the early 2000’s to reduce Navy crew sizes and the rapid deployment of more ships overseas has hurt Navy readiness.
“GAO found in May 2015 that there were no dedicated training periods built into the operational schedules of the cruisers and destroyers based in Japan,” Pendleton said “As a result, the crews of these ships did not have all of their needed training and certifications.”
He also said the Navy wants to grow its fleet by as much as 30 percent but continues to face challenges in “manning, training, and maintaining its existing fleet.”
Wittman said the Navy prioritized operational deployment over maintenance and increased the number of ships in the naval fleet without increasing maintenance. He also said extended tours overseas have hurt readiness.
“The ships have been outside the continental United States for too long,” he said.
Courtney, the top Democrat on the sea power panel, asked who in the line of command decides to waive the need for a ship to be certified before it is deployed.
“We’re trying to find out who calls ‘time out’ and just says ‘no’?” Courtney said. “Who is the decision maker?”
Courtney also asked about the parameters, and timetable, for the Navy’s investigation of the collisions.
Moran said Navy investigative teams were sent immediately to the crash sites and eventually will send him reports on how and why the collisions happened.
The Navy also is conducting an investigation into the larger question of readiness, training and whether Navy policy and methods must change. Moran said that study would take about 60 days.
Courtney said the Armed Services panel would be following the Navy’s progress on these investigations “like a box score.”
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, was invited to take part in the hearing as a special member of the panel because Huynh was a constituent. Doyon lived in Courtney’s district.
She told Navy witnesses that the fatal collision of the USS Fitzgerald occurred on Huynh’s birthday, and his family became concerned when the sailor stopped answering congratulatory messages on Facebook.
She told Moran that while Navy culture is to obey requests for service, “we need to ask you to tell us when we are asking too much.”
That young sailors are working 100-hour workweeks “is really terrifying for them and for us,” she said.
Esty also joined other lawmakers in asking whether budget cuts to the Defense Department, known as a sequester, and Congress’s inability to pass a federal budget on time had hurt readiness.
Congress plans to approve another “continuing resolution,” or CR, this week to avoid government shutdown at the end of the month.
That would fund the government at last year’s levels, preventing the Armed Services from initiating any new weapons program or maintenance project.
Moran said uncertainties in funding have hurt.
“We have had nine consecutive CR’s and are about to get another one,” he said.