Aucoin: Navy Knew About 7th Fleet's Problems

Damage to the USS Fitzgerald (USN file image)

Published Apr 30, 2018 4:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

Since last year's deadly collisions involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, the Navy has made mid-level leadership development a top priority. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has urged all officers to feel empowered to speak up when their units aren't ready to go; he is retooling the sailor fitness report (FITREP) to incorporate ethics and character; and he has launched a new "College of Leadership and Ethics." 

In an editorial published earlier this month, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin (Ret'd) - the former commander of 7th Fleet, who was removed days after the second collision - contends that the accidents were not solely attributable to operations-level leadership failures or to a shortage of reporting. According to Aucoin, the Navy staff had received ample reports of the readiness problems aboard Fitzgerald, McCain and the other Yokosuka-based warships before the accidents occurred, but did not take action to address them. "I made clear to Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet (ComPacFlt), the impact of increased operational demand on training and maintenance well prior to the two DDGs’ collisions. Despite these explicitly stated concerns, the direction we received was to execute the mission," he wrote. ComPacFlt - at that time, Adm. Scott Swift - reports directly to the Chief of Naval Operations and to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris. 

The Navy chose not to comment on Aucoin's account, but the Department of Defense has already confirmed that the service knew about the troubles facing its forward-deployed units. In a 2015 study, the Government Accountability Office found that a high op-tempo for overseas-based ships was putting strain on training and maintenance. DoD responded that the Navy was "well aware" of these risks and had decided to accept them in order to meet operational requrements.

Aucoin's account focuses on the period after this acknowledgement. In 2016 and 2017, operational requirements in the Western Pacific expanded in response to orders from above and to national priorites, he wrote. In response to many of these orders, he says that he recommended against the tasking and wrote detailed reasons for why "sourcing these missions would come at a cost to training and readiness." Often, "our arguments and recommendations were either overruled or ignored," he contends, and a warship would be ordered to sea despite his command's concerns. 

In particular, Aucoin singled out tasking requirements originating from Adm. Harry Harris' Pacific Command. "The [post-collision review] should highlight the magnitude of the combatant commander’s appetite for more operational presence of aircraft, ships, and subs — without requesting additional forces — as a contributing factor to the declining state of readiness in Seventh Fleet leading into the summer of 2017," he wrote. "While the situation was well known by more senior leaders, this demand went unfiltered and fell to me."

To correct the situation, Aucoin calls for more dedicated time for training at 7th Fleet, as has the Navy itself. However, he also calls for a budgetary focus on manning. "Why cannot the Navy ask for more people?," he asks. "In the end, the same fate awaits us if the uniform leaders cannot defend the Navy’s manning requirements, push back on tasking demands, and advocate strongly for those resources that our sailors need to do their job."