Surface Navy bosses are starting to feel the wind in their sails against problems that have beset the fleet for years: bungled maintenance cycles and extended deployments.
The surface Navy’s biggest annual conference, the Surface Navy Association’s national symposium, was dedicated to discussing the progress made on long-standing issues, and also to putting offensive weapons on more platforms to cause the enemy to divert its attention from the standard, concentrated carrier strike groups.
The conference was attended by leadership from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus – himself a former surface warfare officer – to the new heads of Naval Surface Forces and Fleet Forces Command.
The news and developments from the three-day conference:
The fleet’s new top officer promises to rein in deployments and forge more predictable maintenance schedules.
In his first public speech as the head of Fleet Forces Command, Adm. Phil Davidson said he is committed to the so-called Optimized-Fleet Response Plan, designed to fully man, train and equip ships earlier in the deployment cycle, and bring deployments down from as long as 11 months.
Davidson told reporters that bringing carrier deployment lengths to the stated goal of seven months will take at least two more years, as the force tries to reset after surging operational tempo, including the two-year requirement to keep carriers in 5th Fleet.
“We’ve been climbing out of the 2.0 [carrier] pattern we had in Central Command in the 2010 to 2012, early 2013, time frame for a couple of years now,” he said. “It is going to take us a couple more years to get all the way down to seven [month deployments].”
However, Davidson’s staff three days later clarified that the Harry S. Truman would deploy for seven months in the fall of 2015, which is in line with what Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told sailors at an all-hands call in October.
Fleet planners have made progress in bringing down deployment lengths, according to FFC spokesman Capt. Jack Hanzlik.
BMD ships will start deploying for seven and a half months moving forward, Hanzlik said. The Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group, set to deploy in the spring, will be gone for eight and a half months, he said, which is several weeks shorter than recent deployments.
The carrier Carl Vinson, which is deployed to the Persian Gulf, is expected to be gone for about 10 months.
Under OFRP, the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group will be the first to see a seven-month deployment when it sets out in 2016, barring any changes, Hanzlik said.
Quality of life Navy Installations Command is responsible for myriad programs on base, but in 2014 the command stood up a new one at sea: deployed resiliency counselors on big-deck amphibious ships and aircraft carriers.
These civilian counselors serve as a liaison for victims of sexual assault underway, helping them navigate the labyrinth of victim advocates, response coordinators and legal representatives so that they don’t have to leave the ship during early proceedings.
The Navy has hired 13 of 20 planned counselors, and nine have made it out to sea so far.
“The first couple are now back from deployments and we’re learning great stuff from them, because we’ve not provided that type of resource on our big-deck ships before,” said Vice Adm. Dixon Smith, who leads CNIC. “We’re sitting down with them to figure out how we can provide better support to our sailors while they’re underway.”
Back home, Smith said he’s looking for ways to improve base life for sailors and their families, from housing and childcare to more facilities at remote bases, far from the amenities of big cities.
And in October, the Navy launched its Gold Star Families initiative – somewhat modeled on the Army’s program – for spouses, children and parents of sailors killed in the line of duty.
Now, families will have access to on-base services from counseling to commissary and recreation access on a long-term basis.
Back To School
The surface Navy is taking a page out of the airdalebook and standing up a “Top Gun”-style school for black shoes.
The Surface Warfighting Development Center, led by Rear Adm. James Kilby, is two years from becoming a reality. But Kilby is spreading the gospel about a center that will train young officers to be experts at surface warfare weapons and sensors and then send these graduates back to the fleet to train combat information center watchstanders to be, well, the best of the best.
Kilby said he is hoping to get beyond dry standard operating procedures and instill the “why,” to create officers with a deeper understanding of how the ships fight.
“We’re going to take ‘did you do this, yes or no?’ to ‘why did you do this?’ Let’s look at the [tactical memorandum] and see why you did that, let’s try it this way. And then repeat and repeat and repeat. So there is learning that happens there, not just an assessment, but a knowledge transfer.”
The new school will target lieutenants coming out of their second division officer school who are recommended by their chain of command. The officers will go through intensive simulations in various scenarios across the platforms then, once fully trained, they will be sent back to the fleet to train watch teams.
The new school will be located at the Top Gun school at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
Surface Navy On The Rise
The surface Navy’s top officer said his ships are getting manned, their maintenance is getting back on track and the future is bright for the controversial littoral combat ship program.
Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden said he is happy with the progress that personnel leaders have made in closing the unfilled billets at sea, once as high as 20,000, in his Jan. 13 address that opened the annual gathering.
In his first SNA speech as the head of Naval Surface Forces, Rowden detailed steps he’s taken to bring maintenance schedules in line. He said he’s met with fleet maintenance leaders such as Vice Adm. William Hilarides, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, as well as the shipyards, to get ahead of the issues that have caused delays and ultimately led to longer deployments and unpredictable schedules.
In a meeting with reporters after the speech, Rowden said he is taking control of the maintenance cycles personally to make sure planning and executing overhauls go according to plan.
“Let me be clear: I am in charge of this,” he said. “And we must drive discipline into the process. Because what I found as we reviewed where we were going in the executing of three big phases – pre-planning, planning and execution – we were very undisciplined in the way we were approaching the availability.”
The Navy is also actively looking for a longer-range surface-to-surface missile that “puts [the Navy] back on the positive side of the range equation,” he said.
The current Harpoon missile can hit targets at a range of about 64 miles. In September, the Navy tested the Naval Strike Missile, developed by a Norwegian company, which has a range beyond100 miles.
Rowden said he is looking to put more lethal weapons, including a longer-range surface-to-surface missile, on as many platforms as he can to present an adversary with as many threats as possible, distributed over a wide area.
Having more threats, he argues, would force the adversary to expend resources finding ships in groups or independently steaming, because each of them would be threatening to enemy targets.
The concept, called “distributed lethality,” is gaining currency among Navy leaders.