Congress grills Navy on ship collisions

Senior Navy officials told a congressional panel Thursday they were “shocked” by the recent spate of Navy collisions in the Pacific, and they vowed to fix the underlying problems that may have caused four major incidents this year.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran testified on Thursday before two House armed services subcommittees on the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, which claimed the lives of 17 sailors and led to the dismissal of the 7th Fleet commander.

“We are shocked by these recent events,” Moran said in his prepared remarks. “No matter how tough our operating environment, or how strained our budget, we shouldn’t be and cannot be colliding with other ships and running aground. That is not about resourcing; it is about safety and it is about leadership at sea.”

The Government Accountability Office found that more than one-third of training certifications for the Navy’s cruisers and destroyers based in Japan had expired in June — a fivefold increase from 2015, according to GAO’s testimony to the committee, which CNN first reported.

The expired training certifications were just one of several issues involving maintenance and training for ships based abroad GAO outlined. They also raised concerns about the lack of dedicated training time for ships based in Japan, an issue the Navy pledged to address when GAO first raised it in 2015 but has yet to do so.

John Pendleton, GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management, testified Thursday alongside Moran and the Navy’s director of surface warfare, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall.

The two destroyer collisions, along with two cruiser accidents in the Pacific earlier this year, have prompted major questions inside the Navy about the health of its fleet.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson sent a memo to his team on Wednesday that said he was postponing the Navy’s 3-4 star symposium planned for this month.

“Instead of coming to Washington DC, look for places where these tearing down forces may have eroded your standard,” Richardson wrote in the memo, which was obtained by CNN.

“Each of us should have some ‘red lines’ — a point beyond which we cannot go and still be safe and effective. If we can’t meet that standard, we don’t go until we can,” Richardson wrote.

A senior Navy official told CNN that Richardson may not have been aware of all the deficiencies at the time of the failed training certifications.

Lawmakers said the readiness of the Navy’s ships deployed overseas was “deeply troubling” as the Navy has prioritized “operational deployments over maintenance and modernization.”

“The material condition and the operational readiness of the ships are significantly degraded and not acceptable,” said Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, chairman of the House armed services seapower subcommittee. “Of our large surface combatants, the majority of the forward-deployed ships are not properly ready to perform their primary warfare areas.”

Moran testified that the collisions themselves are under investigation, but he acknowledged the Navy has dealt with growing demands and a shrinking fleet.

“We continue to have a supply and demand problem which is placing a heavy strain on the force,” he said.

He also turned the Navy’s woes back onto Congress itself, noting that the lack of timely budgets have hampered planning for ship maintenance and modernization.

“Back in February, I cited funding reductions and consistent uncertainty about Congressional budget approvals as especially damaging, as they prevent us from taking steps to mitigate the burden on ships and sailors imposed by the high operational demand,” Moran said.

Thursday’s hearing is likely the first in a series on the issue. Sen. Roger Wicker, the chairman of the Senate’s seapower subcommittee, told CNN he’s likely to hold a hearing after the Navy completes its investigation into the collisions.