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My view: House committee seeks answers for naval collisions

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Washington, September 7, 2017 | comments
Dear Friend-

As you know, in the early hours of August 21, 2017, the USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel on its way to Singapore. Just one month earlier, another Japan-based destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a similar vessel off the coast of Japan.

I was on official travel in the Pacific at the time of the USS John S. McCain collision, so I altered my itinerary and traveled to Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. I met with the new 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Sawyer and saw the damage of the USS Fitzgerald.

I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Virginian-Pilot this morning explaining what I saw in Japan and what challenges naval surface forces have been facing in the Pacific as it relates to those ships’ operational tempo, training, readiness, and maintenance funding.

The full article is pasted below.

Today at 2pm I will be co-chairing a hearing on the matter of Navy readiness with an emphasis on the underlying incidents involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain.You can watch the hearing live here.

Please do not hesitate to contact me anytime an issue that concerns you comes before the House, especially if it concerns defense and national security.

It's an honor to serve you and Virginia's First District in the People's House.

Sincerely,

Rob



Rob Wittman: House committee seeks answers for naval collisions

September 7, 2017
By Rob Wittman

IN THE EARLY MORNING hours of Aug. 21, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain was involved in a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC, a 30,000-ton oil tanker, as the McCain was en route to Singapore for a routine port visit. The collision resulted in the loss of 10 McCain sailors.

Unfortunately, this event sounds too familiar: Less than three months ago, early one morning, another Japan-based destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a similar merchant vessel off the coast of Japan, taking the lives of seven U.S. sailors.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Fleet Area of Responsibility, I saw the damage to the Fitzgerald caused by the collision with the ACX Crystal. As she laid there in dry dock, I could see the compartments where seven sailors perished.

My observations on the Fitzgerald, coupled with the McCain tragedy, have led me to hold a joint hearing today of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, of which I am the chairman, and the Readiness Subcommittee. The vice chief of naval operations, Adm. Bill Moran; the director of surface warfare, Rear Adm. Ron Boxall; and John Pendleton, the Government Accounting Office’s director of defense force structure and readiness issues, will be included.

Normally I would consider two similar events occurring so close together to be a coincidence, but when 17 sailors lose their lives during two separate routine operations, we must consider it a symptom of a more widespread system failure. It is critical that the Navy act quickly and resolutely to determine the systemic causes of these deadly collisions and remedy them.

We must not reach conclusions prematurely. A host of variables contributed to these incidents. However, there are a myriad of issues that can be viewed as putting these great ships into the position of failure.

It is worth re-examining a report from now-retired Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle, “2010 Fleet Review of Surface Force Readiness,” better known as the “Balisle report.” It highlights the effects associated with drastic budget cuts made to the surface force community. These cuts started during the 1990s draw-down; cuts were made to officer and enlisted training pipelines, shore maintenance support and overall manning of the force. These cuts went even deeper in the wake of the global war on terrorism, where the surface community continued to eliminate training, truncate or defer ship depot maintenance availability and reduce ship training cycle times — all while maintaining an incredibly demanding operational tempo.

This would not happen in the Navy’s other service communities, such as aviation and submarines. If pilots do not have the requisite number of flight hours to operate their aircraft safely, they do not deploy, as evidenced by the cancelled USS Ronald Reagan deployment in 2014. If depot-level maintenance is not properly performed on submarines, the boat stays tied to the pier and loses its dive status, as evidenced by the current situation with the USS Albany. Unlike these other communities, the surface community will assume the risk and deploy their ships — despite not being fully manned, not having 100 percent of maintenance performed, and having a compressed training cycle that exerts so much pressure on the crew that they are often exhausted before they even leave for deployment

There is no doubt that there is plenty of blame to go around for the surface community’s predicament. Past leadership chose to cut too deeply and execute unrealistic budgets. Blame falls on Congress as well. Congress routinely accepted Navy leaders’ statements that the ship maintenance accounts were fully funded when signs of deterioration were evident. Additionally, eight years of passing continuing resolutions is no way to run any enterprise. This, in addition to the Budget Control Act and the 2013 sequester, put our military under significant financial strain. Although requirements for ready surface ship assets deployed throughout the world did not change, adequate funding for training those sailors, manning and maintaining those ships was not provided.

Today’s hearing will be aimed at learning whether these collisions and loss of life could have been prevented. We will try to determine how best to mend a community that has taken deep cuts for more than 15 years. We must take every step necessary to ensure the safety of our sailors and ensure that our naval fleet is meeting our nation’s security challenges around the globe.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman represents the 1st Congressional District of Virginia. He serves on the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Armed Services Committee,where he is the chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
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