Experts say U.S. Navy stretched too thin

Constant deployments, a shrinking number of ships and high demands on crews have frayed the U.S. Navy, according to naval experts and current and former Navy officers, leading to four major incidents at sea this year and the deaths of 17 sailors.

The collision of the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker on Aug. 21 — which left 10 sailors dead — was the culmination of more than a decade of nonstop naval operations that has exhausted the service.

Government reports, congressional probes and internal concerns have all pointed to systemic problems related to long deployments, deferred maintenance and shortened training periods within the Navy’s surface fleet that seem to have coalesced in the Pacific, specifically at the Japan-based 7th Fleet.

Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer commander and deputy director of the Center of American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, said there’s no “silver bullet” for the Navy’s issues and that for the past 15 years, the surface fleet has been in decline.

“The biggest problem is that the Navy recognized this and started to make changes, but at the same time the operational requirements became more pressurized,” he said. “The Pacific fleet has really been pressurized in a way that has harmed the surface forces’ proficiency in very basic things.”

In January, the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, leading to the commander’s dismissal. In May, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat. And roughly a month later, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship in the approach to Tokyo Bay. Seven sailors died and the destroyer’s commanding and executive officers were relieved.

The combined death toll eclipses the number of battlefield casualties in Afghanistan this year, which stand at 11.

In a written message to his officers, Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, pointed out that the rash of incidents occurred during “the most basic of operations.”

“History has shown that continuous operations over time causes basic skills to atrophy and in some cases gives commands a false sense of their overall readiness,” he wrote after the McCain collision.

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