The decline of the US Navy

The level of bureaucratic incompetence plaguing the US Navy is almost astonishing, even without taking into account the way female crewmen have increasingly hindered the ability of the Navy to properly crew its ships. No wonder the Russians were able to defeat US forces in Syria; the Chinese have absolutely no reason to fear a US Navy that literally can’t even steer its own ships.

The Navy called three-star Adm. Phillip Balisle out of retirement to investigate the state of its operations. The fleet was in decline, with two warships so neglected they were unfit for combat. He delivered a sobering assessment.

In 2009, Balisle and a team of investigators had traveled to the Navy’s power centers, in Norfolk, Virginia; Hawaii and San Diego, interviewing senior enlisted sailors, private contractors and officers up and down the chain of command. They toured ships, gathered data and received briefings from senior officials in Washington.

They were alarmed by what they saw. Clark’s “optimal manning” had reduced crew sizes for warships. Destroyer crews had shrunk on average from 317 sailors a decade earlier to 254. Then the Navy shorted the ships even further, exacerbating what was already a critical situation. Ships had roughly 60 percent of the enlisted leaders needed to mentor and train young sailors. And to make up for the short-staffing, the Navy simply extended the crews’ workweeks.

Balisle’s team determined the Navy’s 283 surface ships needed 4,500 more sailors to be staffed to recommended levels.

The condition of those ships was also declining as the Navy reduced time devoted to maintenance. Ships that once docked for 15 weeks for repairs were sent to sea after just nine weeks. The effects were dramatic; destroyers the Navy hoped would last for 40 years were hanging on for just 25. Reports of problems with certain radar systems were up, and sailors were increasingly unable to make fixes on their own.

A legion of poorly trained junior officers aboard the ships were being promoted, Balisle warned, creating a generation of unprepared leaders.

Balisle’s report, dated February 2010, was delivered to Mabus and to Congress.

“It appears the effort to derive efficiencies has overtaken our culture of effectiveness,” Balisle said in the report. He then took aim at the “downward spiral” of the Navy’s culture, in which a commitment to excellence had been badly eroded.

“From the most senior officers to the most junior petty officer, the culture reveals itself in personal attitudes ranging from resignation to frustration to toleration,” he wrote. “While the severity of current culture climate may be debated, its decline cannot.”

The report left Work, then the undersecretary of the Navy and Mabus’ No. 2, shaken. He decided to act.

Work, a widely respected figure at the Pentagon, said he began using his monthly meetings with then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his counterparts at the Army, Marines and Air Force to detail the stress on the Navy’s ships. The Navy was being asked to conduct too many operations, Work told them, some of debatable merit. The problems were real, he said, and the risks to readiness considerable.

“We’re using the fleet too much,” Work told the Pentagon. “We have to say ‘no’ more often.”

Work said he brought Carter round after round of data showing the demands on the fleet were degrading its readiness to counter threats.

Specifically, Work recalled raising concerns about a request around 2011 to have two of the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers — and their escort ships — in the Persian Gulf at all times, an unusual demand that would require putting off repairs and training.

The request came from the commander of CENTCOM, the uniformed officer responsible for all operations in the Middle East. In the military, the wishes of what are known as combatant commanders are all but paramount. They are often dealing with issues of utmost national security: the war in Afghanistan, the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, ISIS fighters in the Middle East, Al Shabab terrorists in the Horn of Africa, the expansionist aims of China and Russia.

Individual combatant commanders, who report to the secretary of defense, are in charge of military operations inside six global regions, no matter which branch of the military is conducting the operation. The leaders of the Navy, Army and Air Force are responsible for delivering trained and equipped troops. They can lobby the Pentagon against an operation they feel is ill-advised, but the final say goes to the defense secretary, and ultimately the president.

Navy officials — from captains helming ships to three-star admirals — told ProPublica that many commanders’ operations seemed unnecessary, such as shows of force requested by allies, joint-training exercises with foreign militaries or so-called presence missions in non-contentious parts of the world. As Aucoin struggled to find ships to patrol off nuclear-armed North Korea, his superiors sent a destroyer to help the small Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Nauru enforce their fisheries laws.

Some extolled such operations as key to maintaining so-called soft power — keeping allies happy, telegraphing might without direct military force. But others saw them as a luxury a strapped Navy could no longer support. When the Navy had 600 ships, about 100 were at sea at any given time. With half as many ships, the Navy still keeps about 100 at sea. In other words, as the Navy shrunk its fleet, it increased the workload on its sailors.

The USA is almost certainly going to lose its next major war. What we are witnessing here is nothing new, it is absolutely normal for an empire that has indulged itself in imperial overstretch for generations to fail to fund its military infrastructure prior to engaging in the conflict that fatally exposes the rot within. And lest you appeal to the inherent strength of the American people, keep in mind, the United States of Diversity is comprised of a very, very different population than the United States of America of 78 years ago.