ProPublica

Navy Leaders Taken to Task by Lawmakers, Including One Who Was Grilling a Former Boss

Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Tuesday expressed frustration to senior Navy leaders over the pace of reforms arising from two ship collisions in the Pacific that left 17 sailors dead.

Rep. Elaine Luria, a newly elected Democrat from Virginia, asked at a hearing whether the Navy was moving quickly enough to deliver on promises made after the deaths of the sailors on board the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain in the summer of 2017.

A former Navy commander, Luria displayed her insider knowledge of naval operations in rapid-fire questions to the admirals appearing before a House Armed Services Committee panel.

Luria, who retired in 2017 after 20 years of service, had once served under one of those admirals, John Aquilino, current head of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

“We continue to be incapable of properly manning, training and equipping our surface forces,” Luria said. “For nearly two decades, we prioritized efficiency over effectiveness.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said he blamed Navy leadership for the deaths of the sailors on board the Fitzgerald and the McCain. Both destroyers were hit by slow-moving cargo ships.

“It is apparent that senior leadership failed to put adequate systems in place to prevent these collisions,” said Wittman, who has closely tracked the accidents over the past 18 months. “If the appropriate reforms are not properly implemented, these problems and these deaths will continue.”

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Aquilino said the Navy had begun making progress. As an example, he said he had twice personally canceled ships from going on missions requested by the Pacific commander, the region’s top military leader. The high pace of operations was found to play a leading role in the collisions.

A spokesman said the missions involved cooperative exercises with allies, one focused on the enforcement of maritime law in small South Pacific islands and a second involving a biennial event that draws together navies from all over the Pacific region. Aquilino also freed up personnel resources by reducing by three months the amount of time a strike force had to stand by ready to deploy quickly.

Navy leaders have also extended the amount of training provided to officers and added more sailors to ships sailing from the 7th Fleet, the Japan-based command that served as the base for the McCain and Fitzgerald.

But Aquilino warned that Congress needed to continue funding to make sure the Navy maintained its readiness, or its ability to wage war, in the contested Pacific region.

“We continue to aggressively take action to rebuild our readiness,” Aquilino said. “That said, there is still great work to do.

“The readiness of the fleet is fragile, and it is also perishable,” he said.

Lawmakers repeatedly referred to ProPublica’s reporting on the collisions, including a reconstruction of the Fitzgerald collision and an examination of the years of danger signs ignored by senior Navy leaders.

On Monday, ProPublica reported that Navy claims of progress were being challenged by current ship commanders and sailors. Officers said the Navy was manipulating the number and expertise of sailors on its ships to meet personnel goals. Navy officials said they were unaware of any such misrepresentation.

On Tuesday, ProPublica asked sailors to weigh in on whether they had witnessed any changes promised in the Navy's list of 103 reforms. Adm. Bill Moran, the Navy’s second in command, said the Navy had begun work on 91 of the changes but had not yet completed any of them.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have repeatedly asked for better transparency and more data on the success of the reforms in recent months. Naval leaders have replied with limited information.

Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat who chairs the armed services committee on readiness, pointed to the push by former Navy leaders to boost the number of ships from 288 to 355 in coming years.

“I worry that Navy leadership remains overly focused on shipbuilding and is not adequately prioritizing the manning and maintenance of its current fleet,” Garamendi said. “I’m troubled by reports that the Navy’s investigations were not fully transparent about the extent to which a brutal operational tempo, low morale and preventable technical challenges contributed to these disasters.”

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