The collision-damaged guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in dry dock at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, July 11, 2017.

The collision-damaged guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald sits in dry dock at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, July 11, 2017. (Leonard Adams/U.S. Navy)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The head of the Navy’s Surface Forces says the service is solving manning shortages that have plagued the 7th Fleet, which experienced a pair of deadly collisions last year.

Undermanned ships were cited among the factors that led to the deaths of 17 sailors aboard the Yokosuka-based guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain.

Vice Adm. Richard Brown told Stars and Stripes in a recent interview that “significant progress” has been made toward increasing manning levels for 7th Fleet ships since a summit on the issue took place in Yokosuka last summer.

Brown — then serving as head of Navy Personnel Command and deputy chief of Naval Personnel — participated in the three-day meeting alongside officials from 7th Fleet, Naval Forces Japan, Pacific Fleet and Navy Personnel Command. They discussed the impact manning policies were having on 7th Fleet’s ability to complete its missions, along with possible solutions.

“There are individual manning challenges, but if you look at the fit/fill numbers today as opposed to June of last year, significant improvement … many of the ships are running near 100 percent fill of their billets authorized and well above the minimum 92 percent fit,” he said.

Navy officials told Stars and Stripes last summer that the 7th Fleet was facing a manning crunch, especially in certain high-demand technical jobs such as sonar techs or operations specialists. During one deployment cycle, the fleet’s Task Force 70 had to redistribute more than 40 sailors among various ships to make them deployable.

Brown acknowledged several factors affecting 7th Fleet’s manning. Forward-deployed forces had the same manning policies as stateside units; however, that model didn’t take into consideration that forward-deployed units have higher deployment tempos, shorter maintenance periods and less downtime between deployments, he said.

He also attributed manning issues to the fact that stateside-based sailors’ tour lengths are often decided by their occupational specialty, with tours ranging from two to five years. Japan-specific policies generally cap tours at two or three years, leading to sailors rotating out faster and more often than those in stateside units.

Brown said more junior sailors are receiving orders to 7th Fleet after completing basic training or jobs schools, which has done much to alleviate manning issues.

“Sixty-percent of a ship’s fit/fill is made up of apprentice sailors,” he said. “What we saw was that there needed to be a higher prioritization of those folks graduating from boot camp and [job school] being assigned to units in [the Forward Deployed Naval Force]. Significant improvement a year later.”

Brown said last summer’s manning summit accomplished its objective of boosting manning in the fleet.

“We’re running in the low 90s or the high 80s on fit/fill across all the ships,” he said. “Many of the ships are at 100 percent fill, high 90s fill, and they’re above 92 percent. Not all of them — there are still issue we are working on individually — but significant improvement a year later. It had the desired effect.”

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