Ranking Member Courtney's Opening Remarks For Seapower And Projection Forces Subcommittee And Readiness Subcommittee Joint Hearing on Surface Warfare: At A Crossroads
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you Secretary Spencer and Admiral Richardson for your presence here today to update our subcommittees, and the American people, on the results of your reviews of last year’s Navy ship collisions. This is the fourth engagement we have held on topic which is of the highest urgency, given the unacceptable level of fatalities in a non-combat setting which occurred in 2017. For many members, even those who hail from districts far from the Western Pacific, these collisions strike close to home. In Connecticut, two outstanding Sailors – Electronics Technician 2nd Class Dustin Doyon of Suffield and Sonar Technician 2nd Class Ngoc T Truong Huynh (pronounced “Nop - Troong - When”) of Watertown lost their lives. It is the duty of all of us to ensure that bold, systemic change happens to protect our sailors and ships from similar tragedies in the future.
Last week at the Surface Navy Association annual symposium held just across the Potomac in Virginia, a panel of young officers assigned to forward deployed ships in Japan discussed the challenges they face maintaining readiness in the 7th Fleet. They described high operational tempo, the challenge of simultaneous training and operations, and long work hours. Their most powerful comments, however, described a system in which they could not be certain they even understood the risks they were taking.
One junior officer stated that, following the collisions of the Fitzgerald and McCain, they had asked themselves “I’m certified for my position, but do I actually know what I’m doing?” Another officer, when considering the relatively incident-free deployment he had recently returned from, asked “Are we good at this or are we just lucky?” These statements describe issues which go far beyond the particulars of any one ship. They speak to systemic problems in operations, training, and management of our surface forces.
The Comprehensive Review and the Strategic Reviews make dozens of recommendations for changes and reforms that are needed inside the Navy. These include increased oversight and accountability over the readiness of our foreign deployed ships, streamlining and clarifying command and control relationships throughout the fleet, and restoring regular cycles of training and maintenance in our fleet’s high operational tempo. After meeting with each of you, it is clear that many of these recommendations have been or are in the process of being implemented internally. I urge you to continue to make their implementation a top priority and to keep Congress and families of our lost Sailors updated on your progress.
Other recommendations, however, will need Congress’s direct attention and action. For example, one of the areas where both reviews agree is that Congress has contributed these systemic readiness issues in the surface forces. Specifically, recent defense appropriations bills have carried language which restricts the Navy from realigning its man, train, and equip functions under a single command.
These congressionally mandated command and control restrictions have allowed an unusual situation to continue in which Pacific Fleet is responsible for both deploying forces and determining when those forces are ready to deploy, and to do so separate from the rest of the fleet. As the results of your respective reviews have made clear, this arrangement allowed ships to be deployed without basic certifications and without meaningful plans to mitigate the risk to our sailors.
While there is disagreement in the Comprehensive Review and Strategic Review about the best command and control structure for naval surface forces, it is clear that continued Congressional limitation in this area is a hindrance to the management and readiness of the fleet. Even before the recent collisions, Congress has seriously considered changes to this restrictive language. In 2016, the House voted unanimously to remove the provision completely but it was later restored by the Senate. It is my hope that we can once again work on a bipartisan basis to remove these restrictions from our funding bills and see these efforts through to the end. Your input here today will be invaluable in that effort.
The other obvious mission Congress can execute is to restore budget stability for the Navy. We need repair work to move forward in a timely manner. We need to increase the supply of ships available to fleet forces command rather than letting shipbuilding plans languish. The federal government has operated under CRs in eight of the last twelve months and it appears likely to grow to nine out thirteen. This is hardly the roadmap to a 355 ship navy.
I think I speak for my colleagues in saying that we stand ready to assist our witnesses today to create bold new institutional change. We owe it the memories of the Sailors we’ve lost, we owe it to their families, and we owe it to those forward deployed Sailors who are asking themselves today, “Am I just lucky?”
I look forward to your testimony.”