Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces, speaks at a Surface Navy Association conference, July 14, 2017.

Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces, speaks at a Surface Navy Association conference, July 14, 2017. (Trevor Welsh/U.S. Navy)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Navy is standing up a new unit to look at warship readiness in the Western Pacific following a string of serious accidents.

Naval Surface Group Western Pacific will focus on ships assigned to the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, Naval Surface Forces commander, told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday. Rowden is in Japan this week visiting 7th Fleet ships at naval bases in Yokosuka and Sasebo.

Some have suggested lack of time for training, maintenance and certification is at least partly to blame for collisions involving 7th Fleet ships that have killed 17 sailors in recent months.

California-based Rowden, who oversees the manning, training and equipping of Navy ships, said he has talked to Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift about the need for “eyes and ears on the waterfront.”

The new unit will differ from the Yokosuka-based Afloat Training Group Western Pacific, which looks at certifying specific ship parts but doesn’t evaluate vessels as a whole. It will let the Navy know whether a ship is able to conduct operations or if another ship should be sent instead, he said.

Led by a yet-to-be-named officer who has already commanded a cruiser, destroyer, amphibious squadron or amphibious-assault ship, the group will be an honest broker that can say: “Should this ship go do that, or is there another ship that’s available?” Rowden said.

Swift told the San Diego Union-Tribune last week that the unit would include a staff of 30 to 50 experts in engineering, safety, maintenance, seamanship and training and would be headquartered in Japan.

A previous version of the group worked out of Subic Bay, Philippines, before moving to Singapore in 1992 to become Logistics Group Western Pacific, which is now focused on supporting ships logistically in the region. A similar group, Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, oversees the maintenance and training of ships homeported at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

The 7th Fleet’s high operational tempo and lack of balance between operational needs, training and maintenance makes the new unit a necessity, Rowden said.

“We had a tendency to focus much more on ensuring that we always accomplished whatever mission was assigned, regardless of the cost,” he said. “The standup of the Naval Surface Group Western Pacific allows us the opportunity to shift that question from, ‘Can they do it?’ to, ‘Should they do it?’”

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