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Navy secretary tours San Diego, pledges to fix destroyer crash problems

Richard Spencer, secretary of the Navy, spoke with crew members of the USS Gabrielle Giffords at Naval Base San Diego.

NELVIN C. CEPEDA/THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE (TNS)

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 29, 2017

SAN DIEGO — In office for only 26 days, the 76th Secretary of the Navy visited San Diego on Tuesday, vowing to rush emergency teams to hurricane-ravaged Texas, hike the firepower of the embattled littoral combat ships and solve the problem of warship collisions in the Western Pacific.

Former Wall Street tycoon and Marine aviator Richard Spencer also asked Congress to revamp the Budget Control Act of 2011 to restore billions of dollars to the military, hiking the quality of life for troops while prepping them better for combat against increasingly capable foes.

“I think if I had a message to the American taxpayer, I’d like them to pay attention to the Budget Control Act, which has really wreaked havoc on the military,” Spencer said. “We really need to work together to get the resources necessary to provide the quality of life and readiness for our services.”

Known as the “sequestration deal,” the legislation forestalled a default on the federal government’s debt and promised to trim the budget deficit but it also ushered in defense spending cuts that critics believe hurt military modernization.

A Connecticut native, Spencer was President Donald Trump’s second pick to helm the Navy. The previous nominee, international private equity investor Philip Bilden, withdrew from consideration after fretting about the deep divestiture of his family fortune to meet federal standards barring conflicts of interest.

Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Aug. 1, Spencer, 63, took office two days later.

A former Marine helicopter pilot, Spencer said that crews in Norfolk were loading emergency supplies onto the amphibious assault ships Kearsarge and Oak Hill before sailing 2,500 sailors and Marines to a Texas coast battered by Hurricane Harvey.

He already directed MH-60 Seahawk and MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters to Texas to perform search and rescue operations and provide heavy lift capability to local responders, if necessary.

After a brief tour of the littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords alongside its skipper, Cmdr. Kevin P. Meehan, and a meeting with Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces, and U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., Spencer praised the crew by telling them they were America’s “pointy end of the spear,” the team that “makes it all click.”

Turning to reporters gathered along the pier, Spencer vowed a comprehensive review of the root causes of a series of accidents involving Navy surface warships in the Western Pacific over the past year.

In January, the guided-missile cruiser Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, gushing hydraulic oil into the sea. Five months later, a South Korean fishing boat slammed into the cruiser Lake Champlain and then in June the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald was struck by a Phillipine-flagged container vessel, killing seven American sailors.

On Aug. 21, the destroyer John S. McCain collided with a Liberian-flagged oil tanker, leaving 10 American sailors dead and triggering the firing of Japan-based 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin because of a loss of confidence in his command.

Spencer said that not only would he gather the best minds in the active-duty Navy, retired commanders and private sector experts, but he’d stand up a “red team” to review and challenge “and enhance” their findings.

“This is unacceptable, the process that is going on now,” Spencer said.

Although the littoral combat warship Gabrielle Giffords has drawn raves from the Navy for its problem-free maiden voyage to San Diego, the program that birthed her has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and concerns that the nimble LCS lacks the firepower and crew size to defeat an enemy and quickly repair battle damage.

Following a spate of technology glitches and leadership failures on Sept. 5, Rowden ordered a stand-down for every crew in the littoral combat fleet to “review procedures and standards for their engineering departments.”

Although Spencer said that he’ll continue to arm the LCS with anti-ship missiles such as the Block 1C Harpoon that was fired 13 months ago from the deck of the littoral combat ship Coronado, he reminded reporters that the Navy is wooing shipyards to vie for the chance to replace the vessels with a sturdier and more lethal frigate.

Only moments before, he told the crew of the Giffords that he and his admirals were considering taking the venerable Oliver Hazard Perry-class of frigates out of mothballs as a way to bridge the transition from LCS to the new vessel.

Rearming the Perry warships with the latest technology could help grow the Navy’s fleet to 355 warships, but it comes with higher costs because the older frigates require twice as many sailors to operate as the more modern automated LCS ships.

Spencer said he might revamp the U.S. Coast Guard’s proven National Security Cutter program to produce the newest Navy frigate or use foreign blueprints to build in America warships such as BAE System’s Type 26 warship for the United Kingdom.

“We’re going to turn over every rock to make sure we get the best performance for our dollar,” Spencer said.

Spencer side-stepped questions about Trump’s decision to radically reshape the military’s policy of retaining and deploying transgender troops, telling reporters that “the policy hasn’t been developed yet so I can’t comment on it.”

Peters defended Spencer by saying “that policy isn’t coming from him,” but he took aim at Trump, calling his proposed transgender ban “counterproductive,” “idiotic” and “frankly un-American.”

Spencer also toured San Diego’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command — SPAWAR — and is slated to visit the Marines at Camp Pendleton on Wednesday.

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©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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