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Report: Decade of Navy personnel cuts hinders current readiness

Ships from Destroyer Squadron 15 and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force cruise in formation in the Pacific Ocean during an exercise in April. Ships participating in the exercise included the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald, USS McCampbell, and USS Stethem, and the Japanese destroyers JDS Akebono, JDS Shimakaze and JDS Suzunami.

BROCK A. TAYLOR/U.S. NAVY

By LISA M. NOVAK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 15, 2010

NAPLES, Italy — The Navy’s personnel cuts over the past decade went too far and were based on faulty assumptions, possibly resulting in reduced readiness, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office report.

The Navy has reduced the number of sailors assigned to destroyers and cruisers by 16 percent since 2001. Those reductions were based on a long-held assumption that at-sea workloads were heavier than in-port workloads, but that assumption didn’t jibe with what sailors told the GAO.

But, the Navy made these cuts without undertaking certain analysis to determine how such moves would affect the readiness of ships at sea or in port, the GAO report said.

In 2008 and 2009, the Navy performed readiness inspections on 26 guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. Of those 26 inspections, six destroyers were deemed unfit for sustained combat operations.

In the previous five years, only one destroyer of the 59 inspected failed.

While the report said it couldn’t draw conclusions from such small numbers, it noted that Navy officials told GAO they believed the crew reductions had a “detrimental effect on the condition of these ships.”

Cruisers and destroyers account for around 80 of the Navy’s 287 ships and submarines, with about 25,000 sailors stationed aboard.

The GAO study didn’t reveal issues that the Navy hadn’t already known about, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Several years ago, commanders began “scrubbing” reports to determine if the Navy had the correct number and type of personnel available for the varying missions within the Navy, he said. The scrubbing revealed that some ships’ crews were off by 10 percent to 15 percent. On a ship with a crew of 300, for example, that could mean staff deficits of 30 to 45 sailors.

As a result, commanders — though they might not be able to increase the size of the crew — could use the analysis to fine-tune the crew by seeking sailors with specific skills to get the job done, Servello said.

In 2002, the Navy increased its workweek for sailors from 67 to 70 hours as part of its ongoing “optimal manning initiatives,” and two years later, it reduced the number of enlisted sailors on cruisers and destroyers based on a reduced at-sea workload.

However the Navy didn’t complete the required analysis to justify the move, according to the GAO report.

Workweeks were established as guidelines for planning purposes only — they’re not requirements, according to the Navy’s manpower policies instruction from 2007. The policy gives commanding officers plenty of leeway to adjust work schedules based on operational requirements, but the instruction itself acknowledges the impacts of extended workweeks.

“Under certain circumstances it may become necessary to exceed the standard workweek; however, extending working hours on a routine basis could adversely affect such matters as morale, retention, safety, etc., and as policy, such extensions should be avoided,” the instruction reads.

An increase in force-protection requirements, including antiterrorism training, accounted for part of the added in-port workload, which the Navy didn’t take into account when calculating in-port workload, the GAO report says.

Also, a reduction in the workforce at shore maintenance facilities meant crewmembers had to pick up the slack.

In another cost-cutting measure the Navy also made major changes to its training programs, shifting from classroom to computer-based training. But the Navy hadn’t properly measured the impact of computer-based training on job performance, or the time it takes to complete required qualifications, according to the report.

Other initiatives cited as impacting ship crews included the individual augmentee program which temporarily assigns sailors to Army and Marine Corps units. These sailors are sent downrange while they are on shore duty, but some are taken directly from shipboard assignments, the report said. The Navy agreed with the findings and told GAO it would conduct a study based on the report.

novakl@estripes.osd.mil