The Navy Must Be Forward

September 19, 2017
It has been a tragic year for the Navy’s Japan-based Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). Four significant shipboard accidents (three collisions and a grounding)—including two collisions in two months—resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors and what is likely to be more than $500M in repair costs to return the damaged ships to service. Given mounting evidence of a decline in the aggregate readiness of this force, it is tempting to consider reducing forces assigned forward in favor of increasing U.S.-based forces, which appear at first glance to be maintained at a higher standard of readiness.

This view, however, relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of how readiness is produced and maintained in our Navy—and fails to appreciate the unique role that forward-deployed forces play in enhancing deterrence. Moreover, forward-deployed forces act as force multipliers for the Navy, which is able to generate the same presence with one ship based in Japan as it would with four ships based in the continental United States. Rather than reduce its forward-deployed footprint, with the appropriate resources from Congress, the Navy must address the systemic problems that contributed to declining readiness in FDNF forces. In other words, now is not the time to give up on the FDNF; now is the time to properly resource it.

This year’s tragedies occurred against the backdrop of increasingly aggressive maritime actions by China in the Western Pacific and the threat posed by North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapon and missile technology programs. Increasing operational commitments have spread the force thin, and it is challenged to meet the critical security commitments asked of it.  The degree to which this pressurized operational environment is at the heart of four closely-spaced accidents remains to be seen, as the Navy has yet to release all four investigations. In addition, the Navy is conducting two other inquiries designed to assess systemic issues underlying the incidents.

Current evidence, however, suggests there is indeed a systemic problem—i.e., that the Navy has insufficiently maintained its commitment to the readiness of this forward-deployed force. Supporting this assessment, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran testified  recently that “I personally made the assumption…that our forward-deployed naval forces in Japan was [the] most efficient, well-trained, most experienced force we had because they were operating all the time…It was a wrong assumption in hindsight.”

Additional evidence of the decline came from the Government Accountability Office, which noted that more than a third of the cruiser and destroyer crews in FDNF-Japan had at least one lapsed war certification—a fivefold increase since 2015. This significant increase in assumed risk and the current approach to FDNF readiness is unsustainable. Critics of the FDNF model are right to be concerned, and a course correction is surely required.

Yet it is important to understand that U.S.-based forces and forward-deployed assets operate under very different readiness models for good reason. U.S.-based forces spend most of their time removed from immediate threat, with dedicated periods for intense maintenance and unit-level training. Under the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP), a ship’s schedule allows for about 6.5 months of maintenance, 9.5 months of training, 7 months of deployment, and 13 months of sustainment. At the start of that seven-month deployment, waived or lapsed certifications are rare. However, when in their maintenance and unit-level training phases, the readiness of these forces declines dramatically, as resources are directed at forces that are closer to their deployment dates.

As retired Navy Commander Bryan McGrath has argued , the OFRP model is geared towards producing assembly line-style readiness for carrier strike groups which deploy forward at the highest level of readiness. Yet this model is not ideally suited to forward-deployed forces. After all, these forces are stationed where the threats are greatest, and it is essential that they be maintained at a high state of readiness. A long period where they are unable to deploy in response to changing threats is much less feasible than for U.S.-based units. While it is far from ideal, the scope and seriousness of their missions, their proximity to threats, and the paucity of available forces demands a higher level of risk be assumed in forward-deployed forces.

Forces stationed in key theaters also play an important strategic role that their US-based counterparts simply cannot duplicate. Forward-deployed assets in vital strategic regions offer a constant and tangible demonstration of U.S. presence and determination that both reassures allies and deters potential aggressors. While ships based in the United States can transit the world’s oceans and show the flag when needed, their presence is ultimately transitory. Forward-deployed assets, to the contrary, are not only more rapidly able to respond to crises, but factor into the immediate calculus of regional actors in a way that U.S.-based forces, however numerous, cannot match.

This is not to denigrate the role of U.S.-based forces, which appropriately comprise the bulk of the Navy’s fleet. The point is that the Navy needs both forward-deployed and U.S.-based forces. The danger in the current moment is that in our rush to correct real and tragic shortcomings in the FDNF, we will overcorrect and limit our forward-deployed assets. This would be a profound and dangerous strategic miscalculation.

The right thing to do is to recognize the immense value of forward-deployed naval forces, and then resource them accordingly. The Navy, under budgetary pressure, has been wringing the maximum operational value from ships in Japan by cutting corners in maintenance and training. This must end. The Navy must seek and the Congress must provide the level of support necessary to maintain this force in a higher state of readiness in the face of increasing demand. The training and maintenance organizations in Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, must be manned with not only the required number of sailors, but sailors with the requisite skill levels. In addition, forward-deployed ships should receive the highest priority for filling gapped critical billets.

We also need more ships forward to ensure an equitable workload to provide ships with sufficient time to train and pursue certifications. This must go hand-in-hand with increasing the physical maintenance and training capacities at our forward locations. In the meantime, the Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift,  should review aggressively the requirements levied on FDNF-Japan surface ships and eliminate lower priority taskings. He must return to a more balanced approach to operations, training, and maintenance, and implement adjustments to the FDNF readiness model that recognize the both the benefits of forward-deployed forces and the mandate to guard against excess risk assumption.

The tragic deaths of seventeen sailors have sadly demonstrated current readiness challenges in the Western Pacific and focused the attention of both the Navy and Congress. In honor of the fallen, it is time to get to work on returning the forces we rely on most to the state of readiness that responsibility requires. It is not the time to give up on the FDNF, whose presence and power have been the bulwark of Western Pacific stability for decades. We need to fix the problem, not shift it.

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