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.
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.
How you get there is less important than just getting there.
Full article: Adrift and Unready for War: Crisis in the U.S. Seventh Fleet (SouthFront)