Sept. 8 (UPI) -- The Vice Chief of Naval Operations testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday about the crisis in readiness that is affecting forward-deployed Navy ships.
The impetus for the hearing was the recent collisions of the destroyers USS John McCain and USS Fitzgerald with civilian ships just two months apart. The incidents killed 17 sailors, inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage, and left both destroyers crippled.
Admiral Bill Moran, vice chief of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral Ronald Boxall, director of Surface Warfare, and John Pendleton, director of Defense Force Structure and Readiness Issues for the Government Accountability Office, testified for nearly three hours before the committee.
Regularly referred to in the hearing was a GAO report that noted a wide disparity between forward-deployed ships in Japan and U.S-based ships.
U.S.-based ships typically spent roughly 40 percent of their time deployed and 60 percent of their time in training and maintenance. Japan-based ships, however, spent 67 percent of their time deployed, 33 percent of their time in maintenance, and did not have a dedicated training schedule.
Pendleton testified that training deficiencies had led to 37 percent of all certifications for Japan-based ships being expired. He said that eight of the 11 surface warfare ships based in Japan had expired seamanship certifications.
Senior officers issued waivers for the expired certifications in order to keep ships at sea despite not meeting training requirements. Maintenance backlogs and parts shortages further exacerbated readiness issues.
The strategic implications of losing two Aegis destroyers for the foreseeable future also came up during the hearing.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran, questioned whether the crippling of the two destroyers left in the region for ballistic missile defense would be quickly replaced. Both the McCain and the Fitzgerald were equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense systems alongside five other destroyers and cruisers with 7th Fleet.
"You had seven BMD ships forward deployed, you lost two," Duncan said. "What are you going to do in the meantime for those two? What is going to fill the gap while they are being repaired?"
Moran did not say which ships would replace the two damaged destroyers, but said they planned to bring the number of BMD-equipped ships back to seven. He also did not give a specific time frame for doing so, limiting his response to "as long as it takes."
Aegis BMD ships play a key role in the missile defenses covering Japan and South Korea.
HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, asked Moran why he said previously that forward-deployed ships were at better levels of readiness then home-ported ones.
"I looked at your testimony earlier this year and you highlighted the stresses and strains on the force based on the operational tempo," Thornberry said. "You also testified that you thought the deployed fleet was in pretty good shape, the ships here in the United States were really suffering. Based on what you know today, would you revise that assessment?"
Moran said he'd based the view on an assumption "for many, many years" that forward deployed forces in Japan are the "most proficient, well-trained, most professional force we had because they were operating all the time."
"It was a wrong assumption in hindsight," he said. "I'm very anxious to remind the committee that we have to get to the root cause of both mishaps before we could make a determination. But the trends that the GAO have pointed out, the trends we are seeing in our reporting stats, are concerning. They do demonstrate a fraying on the edges of our readiness that we need to address."
The Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine-flagged cargo vessel off Japan on June 17, killing seven sailors and injuring three others, including the ship's commander. The commander and other leadership on the Fitzgerald were later relieved of duty.
The McCain collided with a Liberian-flagged container ship east of the Straits of Malacca near Singapore on Aug. 25, killing 10 sailors, just two months after the Fitzgerald incident.
The two fatal accidents followed two other incidents involving Japan-based surface warfare vessels earlier this year. In May, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain was struck by a South Korean fishing boat, and in January, the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground while trying to anchor in Japan, leading to serious damage to its propellers.