The New Path To Readiness; Surface Fleet’s ‘Huge Shift’ Includes Tougher Inspections, Revamped Training
By Sam Fellman and Gidget Fuentes, Navy Times (March 26, 2012)
After years of mounting concerns that short-staffed crews and a rapid operational pace were wearing down the fleet, the surface Navy has revamped the 27-month training and maintenance cycle between ship deployments, adding new inspections and a phased approach to ensuring ships are ready for sea.
The new plan, known as the Surface Force Readiness Manual, establishes standards for the surface fleet’s maintenance and training and is a blueprint for the interdeployment cycle. It was approved March 9 by the surface Navy’s top flag officers and lays out all assessments, certifications and inspections ships will have complete, from the shipyard through the training phase and into deployment. More than 60 ships have trained under the pilot version of the readiness cycle, which will become the fleet standard beginning this summer, officials said.
Ships will undergo one big material inspection per cycle, along with seven progressive readiness evaluations.
This new plan doesn’t extend to aircraft carriers, whose readiness is managed by Naval Air Forces, or littoral combat ships, which rely on rotational and module-based crewing. It also doesn’t apply to forward-deployed ships, which have a heightened state of mission readiness. But for the rest of the fleet, the readiness manual is the new bible.
The new plan brings the surface Navy in line with submarine and air wing preparations for deployment, said Adm. John Harvey, head of Fleet Forces Command, who called this a “huge shift” because it unifies training through the pre- and post-deployment periods under the Fleet Response Training Plan.
“This kind of approach is standards-based, it’s material-conditions based, and it’s manning-based,” Harvey said in an interview March 9, after the plan was unveiled at Naval Surface Forces headquarters in Coronado, Calif. “It’s focused on what the ship is going to be expected to go do, and the time frame in which it’s expected to do it. It’s got tremendous flexibility.” “What I’m hoping,” Harvey added, “is that the CO and the wardroom and the chiefs’ mess will see a much more coherent approach to getting ready to deploy.”
The new plan has a ring of “Back to the Future” about it, with the surface Navy circling back to older requirements that were jettisoned over the past decade, said one former cruiser commanding officer, who asked not to be named because of current business dealings with the Navy.
“It’s a logical approach to current problems, and although the names have changed, the intent of the requirement appears familiar,” he said.
Reversing The ‘Downward Spiral’
The plan comes after a decade-long slide in ship maintenance standards that stems from underfunding, understaffing and perpetual organizational changes, according to a fleet review panel that labeled this a “downward spiral.”
In its 2010 report, the review noted a decrease in the number of repairs a ship’s crew could complete, a rise in Board of Inspection and Survey assessment failures, and higher casualty reports. “But more alarming is the amount of effort, money, time and outside assistance required to make a ship ready for the INSURV certification,” reviewers noted. In 2011, after the report was issued, there were two INSURV failures, the same as the year before; there were four failures in 2009.
A central problem was that crews were unable to identify, let alone repair, broken gear and corroded materials, the panel said. Its members called for more inspections by visiting experts to find and document problems so they can later be fixed, and said that task must become a standard part of the interdeployment cycle. Because each ship is required to complete an INSURV every five years, these rigorous inspections typically fall within every other 27-month training cycle.
“The implementation of a third-party assessment process is considered essential to the overall recovery of surface force material readiness,” according to the report.
The new plan adopted this recommendation and others, including an outside assessment prior to a ship’s deployment, and called for boosting the staff of afloat training groups to support these new tasks. The new plan sets bedrock standards for maintenance and training, with pass-fail exams at each step. For the ship to advance from phase to phase, it must pass “exit criteria” detailed in the new manual.
As part of this new plan, ATG will take on more of a coaching role in early training before becoming a referee for certifications and advanced training. ATG staff will also start training crew members — not just the ship’s training team, whose responsibility is to train the rest of the crew.
“In the beginning part of this program, we are very much a coach. We are showing the watchstanders how to do it,” said Capt. Terry Mosher, commodore of ATG Atlantic. “Then, when it comes to the certification event, we go into the assessment mode, and then we become the referee.”
More will be expected of the ATG personnel, Mosher said.
“It really requires that the ATG walking on the ship to be [the] subject-matter expert … because they are now training the watchstanders,” he said.
“In the last year, we have tightened up the screening process on coming into ATG,” he said, noting ATG teams are typically highly qualified and experienced in their rates. His direction to ATG-LANT: “Impart your knowledge and train your sailors.”
Results of the pilot program have been very positive, with more focused training and better material readiness, Mosher said. Because a ship needs to get cleared on maintenance before starting to train — what officials are calling a “building block approach” — that alleviates some of the pressure on sailors, Mosher said.
Under the old plan, “there wasn’t a focus on the equipment working when the ship left the maintenance phase,” Mosher said. “So in the life of a sailor, when he was in the basic phase, he was supposed to be focused on training and instead he was still troubleshooting broken equipment that did not get fixed in the maintenance phase. So his day was jampacked with doing unanticipated maintenance.” The new plan, he continued, “frees up the sailor’s time to really focus on the training.”
‘The Right Thing’
Material inspections are central to the new approach. Under the previous plan, the most thorough material inspection, INSURV, was irregular and happened at various times throughout the interdeployment cycle. The new plan establishes a target: INSURV should be scheduled a month or two after a ship completes its basic training. If no INSURV is needed in that readiness cycle, then the type commander will come aboard during this same window and hold a material inspection.
“By conducting a material validation every FRP cycle, ships will better understand their equipment status and capabilities and reduce the premium costs associated with late-identified work,” the manual states.
The new guidance uses a six-month deployment within the 27-month deployment cycle. However, ship deployments are increasingly stretching past six months. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said March 16 that seven- to 7½-month deployments was his “ballpark” goal for the future, and there are 11 ships scheduled for eight-month deployments over the next two years.
“If you’re looking at a slide that has a rigid, six-month window for deployment, that’s not how we would execute it,” Mosher said. “There’s flexibility to allow varying lengths of deployment and the plan can adapt to those changes.” Retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, who was involved in the manual’s development as the deputy commander of Fleet Forces, cautioned that the Navy’s operational tempo could lead to more issues if ships are not properly kept up and crews left ill trained. But this new plan is a means of standardizing training and maintenance while also being flexible enough to handle longer deployments.
“If you really hold firm on the exit criteria from phase to phase, then you’re going to get a much more disciplined execution, a more accountable process and a better product,” said Daly, who is now chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md. “I think this is the right thing.”
The former cruiser commander, noting that staffs have thinned out over the past decade, suggested that “staffing and expertise required to meet those requirements in a meaningful way may not exist. My concern would be, does the type commander have the depth and breadth of expertise required?”
Another former ship commander said the sequencing of phases would make for a more logical and improved path to readiness.
“It sounds like they are trying to smooth out various sinusoidal things that have been out of place,” said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, whose command tours include the destroyer O’Brien and amphibious assault ship Essex.
The new policy streamlines the evaluations, assessments, inspections and certifications included as an appendix, which “should make it quite a bit easier for staff schedulers and ship operations officers to work out their long range schedules,” he said.
“A lot of this stuff used to be buried in disparate [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations] and other staff instructions.”
Van Tol also was pleased to see that ships with the forward-deployed naval force in Japan now will have a different readiness policy than other surface ships. Unlike the rest of the fleet, those ships deploy several times a year on shorter patrols throughout the Western Pacific, so the ships must be continually ready to operate.
“We were two days from the gun line if something happened with North Korea,” he said of his time commanding the O’Brien. “It used to be a nightmare trying to force FDNF ships to meet a SURFOR training cycle that took no account of the very different operational and deployment cycles required in the FDNF.”