Wicker focuses on the increased need for naval readiness

Published 7:00 am Thursday, March 8, 2018

By Roger Wicker

Over the course of about 10 weeks last summer, two of the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers collided with two commercial ships in the Pacific.  The first of those collisions involved the USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan, taking the lives of seven U.S. sailors.  The second involved the USS John McCain near Singapore and took 10 lives.  Repairing the extensive damages to these vessels is estimated to cost upwards of half a billion dollars. The tragic loss of life cannot be measured. 

The Navy has conducted investigations into the incidents, concluding they were preventable.  The collision report it released last November pointed to a lapse in operating procedures, inadequate training, crew fatigue, and errors made by the ship’s leadership.  These are troubling findings, and they illustrate the tragic consequences of the stress put on our Navy in recent years.  We are asking our sailors to do more with fewer ships and fewer training opportunities.

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Shortly after the collision report was made public, the Navy released its Strategic Readiness Review, a rigorous independent evaluation of the entire fleet’s operations and organization stretching back three decades.  The review’s recommendations for readiness included the need to meet supply needs, reform chains of command, and support a culture of continued learning.

The Navy can take some administrative steps to strengthen readiness and protect our sailors from avoidable accidents at sea.  However, congressional action is necessary. Congress has a role in funding the ships and equipment that our military needs.  As Chairman of the Senate Seapower Subcommittee, I have introduced a bill to match the Navy’s readiness recommendations with the immediate implementation of reforms.  The conditions that contributed to the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain must end.

More specifically, my “Surface Warfare Enhancement Act” would target maintenance practices, training, and personnel management.  For example, surface warfare officers would need to meet certain training requirements before assuming critical posts on ships. 

In addition, the Navy would create more accurate projections for crew workloads and the maintenance of ships.

Ship maintenance would have more oversight, and the Navy would have more flexibility in the use of its maintenance funds.  Chains of command would be subject to intense review. Efforts to improve naval readiness go hand in hand with efforts to modernize and expand our fleet.

The number of ships has a direct impact on the ability of our sailors to fulfill their missions.  These readiness challenges and the Navy’s call for more ships led to the creation of the “SHIPS Act” that I introduced with Congressman Rob Wittman (R-Va.).  Thankfully, Congress and the President recognized the urgent need to act now if we want to build a fleet capable of advancing our national interests amid growing threats.  The “SHIPS Act” was signed into law last year, making it our national policy to meet the Navy’s force structure requirement of 355 ships.

With only 281 ships currently in the Navy’s fleet, we have a long way to go to meet even this minimum requirement. 

But the heartbreaking lessons of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain are ones we must heed, recognizing the shortcomings that exist in the training and resources available to our sailors.  Their missions begin with preparedness here at home.