WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s top officer in the Pacific is reviewing a program that allowed ships from the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet to operate with expired certifications amid a wide-ranging probe into two deadly collisions that killed 17 sailors and caused untold hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to two destroyers, three sources with knowledge of the decision told Defense News.
Adm. Scott Swift has taken on direct supervision of the “risk assessment management plan” program, a system otherwise known as RAMP that allowed the local destroyer squadron, fleet trainers and stateside commanders to keep their ships on patrol even if their qualifications in critical areas such as damage control, navigation and flight deck operations had lapsed.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office is set to testify Thursday that nearly 40 percent of the Japan-based cruisers and destroyers were operating without valid warfare certifications.
The widespread use of the RAMP system alarmed Navy officials when they began examining readiness issues inside the fleet, raising questions why fleet leaders tolerated the degraded readiness that had taken root in 7th Fleet, even as the demand for its strained ships is at historic highs. And while it’s impossible to draw a straight line between degraded readiness and a series of damaging accidents in the Pacific, experts said the issues are a symptom of an overstressed fleet taking too many risks to meet its demands.
It’s unclear when the RAMP system was put in place, but several retired senior Navy officials were unaware of the program when asked about it. What has become clear, however, is that the system was used routinely and with increasing frequency in 7th Fleet over the past two years.
Now that system is under direct scrutiny by Swift and is part of the inquiry led by fleet boss Adm. Phil Davidson into how 7th Fleet operates.
The GAO will testify before members of the House Armed Services Committee that the system appears to have taken firm root since its 2015 report that showed that the Navy was shorting its readiness and training in 7th Fleet in exchange for increased presence in the region.
“This represents more than a fivefold increase in the percentage of expired warfare certifications for these ships since our May 2015 report,” GAO Defense Capabilities and Management Director John H. Pendleton’s testimony read, according to a copy obtained by Defense News sister publication Military Times.
CNN first reported the GAO’s testimony concerning the rate of lapsed certifications in 7th Fleet.
Ships in 7th Fleet are considered deployed at all times and achieve their certifications in a different manner than ships stateside. A destroyer in San Diego, for example, returns from an overseas deployment and begins a 36-month cycle where the ship is maintained and the crew is trained in increasingly intense operations until the ship is fully qualified and sent back overseas.
But in Japan, qualifications happen on a 24-month revolving basis, according to Navy officials. If the ship is unable to maintain its qualifications — engineering operation, anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, etc. — the squadron commander and/or task force commander then works with the ship’s commanding officer and fleet trainers to get the ship back on track. That system is overseen by the 7th Fleet commander and the top surface warfare officer, Naval Surface Force Pacific, in this case Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden.
But those kinds of fixes are intended to be temporary and not a standard operating procedure as it appears to have become, said Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“It’s the kind of thing you’d want to put in for a temporary period for an uptick in demand, then return to the standards of training,” he said. “So it seems like the Navy went into this as a kind of mitigation strategy and it seems like it‘s sort of became the operational model they’ve been working off of for some time now — at least the last two years.”
The issue of strained readiness among Japan’s high-operational tempo ships is not new and comes in ebbs and flows, according to several sources familiar with 7th Fleet operations who spoke on background. The issues, however, have become even more pronounced as the threat of a nuclear exchange with North Korea has spiked. Most of the surface ships in Japan are equipped to try and shoot down missiles fired at allies or even U.S. territories such as Guam.
There is a standing requirement that the Navy has a set number of ballistic missile defense shooters underway at any given time as a check on North Korea. Both the destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain are ballistic missile defense-enabled ships.
The workarounds in 7th Fleet are yet another sign of an alarming decline in readiness triggered by a Navy too small for what it’s being asked to do, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
“The news reports about the waivers being used to keep ships underway are deeply troubling, and it highlights the real challenge of maintaining readiness in 7th Fleet and in the Pacific,” Hendrix said. “It also highlights that the fleet is not large enough to do every step of the process in getting ships qualified while maintaining its operational commitments.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.