“Operate Forward” is one of the three tenets of CNO Greenert’s vision for the Navy. As such, it is a vital aspect of Navy organization and forms a foundation for the fleet’s operation.
The benefits of forward operation (meaning, overseas homeporting) include greater presence, enhanced deterrence (related to greater presence), and faster crisis response. These benefits seem logical and likely though difficult to quantify and prove. In addition, the Navy also makes some dubious claims about increased operational availability and underway time.
GAO, however, has examined overseas homeporting and found some problems (1). They found that one of the major problem areas associated with overseas homeporting is maintenance. Systemic fleetwide maintenance has been an on-going, major problem for some years and a constant subject of posts on this blog. Navy leaders have publicly acknowledged maintenance problems, have conducted and published studies and reports documenting the problems (the famous Balisle report, for example), and have vowed to improve maintenance. Sadly, maintenance has not improved and may be getting worse.
Now, GAO has examined maintenance related to the practice of overseas homeporting and found disturbing, though not unexpected, developments. Consider the following snippets from the GAO report.
“GAO found that casualty reports—incidents of degraded or out-of-service equipment—have doubled over the past 5 years and that the material condition of overseas-homeported ships has decreased slightly faster than that of U.S.- homeported ships …”
“GAO also found that the high pace of operations the Navy uses for overseas-homeported ships limits dedicated training and maintenance periods, which has resulted in difficulty keeping crews fully trained and ships maintained.”
“GAO found that some ships homeported overseas have had consistently deferred maintenance that has resulted in long-term degraded material condition and increased maintenance costs, and could shorten a ship’s service life.”
“Although the Navy’s decision process for moving individual ships overseas identifies actions and resources needed, it does not assess risks that such moves pose to costs, readiness, or expected service lives of ships that the Navy can expect based on its historical experience operating ships from overseas homeports.”
“Further, the Navy’s high pace of operations for its overseas-homeported ships impacts crew training and the material condition of these ships—overseas-homeported ships have had lower material condition since 2012 and experienced a worsening trend in overall ship readiness when compared to U.S.- homeported ships.”
“However, our analysis shows that the primary reason for the greater number of deployed underway days provided by overseas-homeported ships results from the Navy’s decision to truncate training and maintenance periods on these ships in order to maximize their operational availability.”
“Since the ships are in permanent deployment status during their time homeported overseas, they do not have designated ramp-up and ramp-down maintenance and training periods built into their operational schedules”
“…annual per ship operations and support costs for all ships homeported overseas are about 15 percent, or approximately $9 million, higher than for ships homeported in the United States …”
“We found that high operational tempo for ships homeported overseas limits crew training when compared to ships homeported in the United States. … As a result, these crews do not have all needed training and certifications. Over the course of this review, we found that between 9 percent and 17 percent of the warfare certifications for crews homeported in Japan had expired. Over three-quarters of the expired certifications in January 2015, including air warfare and electronic warfare, had been expired for 5 months or more.”
Thus, we see that the consequences of overseas homeporting include worsened and deferred maintenance, degraded material condition, reduced training, greater costs, and increased wear.
Now, is overseas homeporting a bad thing, in and of itself? No. If implemented wisely, with sufficient maintenance and training and a recognition of the increased costs, there is nothing inherently wrong with overseas homeporting. However, to simply move a ship overseas and then short its maintenance and training is idiotic and replete with easily forseeable consequences.
What do we learn from this other than the fact that the fleet continues to degrade? Well, we learn that Navy leadership continues to make poor decisions whose consequences are easily foreseeable and preventable. The consequences of reduced manning, deferred maintenance, and reduced training are easily forecast. It is not a case of hindsight providing wisdom. For example, anyone can correctly anticipate that reduced maintenance will result in degraded ships with shortened lifespans. Despite the easily foreseen consequences, Navy leadership continues to make one bad decision after another. This is bad enough but the Navy then goes to Congress and begs for new ships and aircraft after utterly failing to maintain the ones they have. This is a lesson most of us learn at age 8 or so – take care of what you have before you ask for new things.
Navy leaders, almost by definition, can’t be mentally deficient (stupid) and yet they continue to make horrible decisions on a wide range of subjects. The group leadership mental deficiency is truly baffling as is the absolute refusal to correct the problems in any meaningful way once highlighted. Three hundred ships may sound good on paper (setting aside the new practice of counting non-combatant vessels!) but represent nothing but a hollow force unless cared for and properly trained.
(1)Government Accountability Office, “NAVY FORCE STRUCTURE: Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports”, GAO 15-329, May 2015