Lessons from two Aging Aircraft Carriers

Twice in the last nine months, the Navy has been forced to relieve the commanding officer of one of its 12 aircraft carriers – the heart of the sea service’s deep-ocean combat power. With the nation at war, this suggested an ominous trend in the state of the U.S. military overall.  

Last December, Navy Inspection and Survey team members boarded the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in Mayport, Fla., to conduct a periodic INSURV readiness inspection. This inspection, which is conducted every three to five years, is designed to examine a ship from top to bottom, looking at equipment, procedures, and training in order to determine the ship’s state of readiness.

It’s kind of like a periodic college entrance exam – an operational SAT exam: You’ve got to pass it to move on. The officers and crew of Kennedy had known for months that this inspection was scheduled.

Navy Capt. David Denis, commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s Board of Inspection and Survey, subsequently reported that of the ship’s four aircraft elevators which are used to bring aircraft from the hangar deck to the flight deck, three were inoperable; of the catapults that launch aircraft, two of the four were in bad shape; the flight deck firefighting equipment was “seriously degraded.” The ship’s conventional propulsion system was “unsafe for operation,” and topside corrosion “was the worst observed in three years.”

Kennedy skipper Capt. Maurice Joyce and his engineering officer were summarily relieved of duty following this inspection, and the ship underwent a $15 million overhaul to correct her material deficiencies.

Six months later, the axe fell on the commander of the USS Kitty Hawk at its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, when that ship failed a light-off assessment, an inspection designed to demonstrate the ship’s and crew’s ability to “light off” the propulsion and power equipment following a shipyard shutdown of these systems.

This failure followed a May 10 incident where Kitty Hawk had struck a buoy in Singapore harbor while the skipper, Capt. Thomas Hejl, was on the bridge, seriously damaging a propulsion shaft and propeller. To complicate matters, a highly publicized string of criminal incidents involving Kitty Hawk sailors had taken place in Japan during the past few months.

On Sept. 3, 2002, 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Robert F. Willard removed Capt. Hejl from command of Kitty Hawk because he had lost confidence in Hejl’s ability to “lead his crew and carry out essential missions and taskings.”

Two carrier skipper sackings in ten months – this has never before happened. What went wrong? Is this a coincidence, or are we seeing the tip of a pernicious iceberg that lies in wait to take down more ships and skippers?

Some background information is important: Kitty Hawk and Kennedy are two of three conventionally-powered aircraft carriers remaining in the fleet (the other nine flattops are nuclear-powered). Kitty Hawk was commissioned at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on April 29, 1961. That’s 41 years of operations, including extended duty in Vietnam. Kennedy was commissioned on Sept. 7, 1968. That’s 34 years, including an Operation Desert Storm deployment against Iraq.

Old ships have old equipment, and old equipment has problems. To compound this, Kennedy was relegated to reserve status for several years prior to October 2000, so that she was well down the priority ladder when it came to available funds for repair and maintenance.

Capt. Rich Burna, Kennedy’s new engineering officer, has a plaque hanging in his office displaying a length of rusted-through fuel pipe. Hundreds of feet of such pipe were replaced in the overhaul following the failed INSURV inspection. Basically, the deteriorated pipe was held together by paint.

Crew members insisted that the inoperable equipment had functioned just the day before the inspection. While this may be true in the strictest sense, the kind of failures discovered by the INSURV board do not happen overnight. They are the result of long years of neglect.

Some senior enlisted crew members have privately told DefenseWatch that certain Kennedy equipment had not functioned for over three years prior to the inspection. They reported “gun decked” engineering logs (that is entries for maintenance not actually completed), and general cover-ups by engineering officers, keeping the command ignorant of the actual condition of the aging ship.

My son deployed on Kitty Hawk’s conventionally-powered sister ship, the USS Independence, in early 1998 as a junior officer for a cruise out of Yokosuka (prior to its decommissioning in September 1998). He reported to me at that time that conditions were atrocious. From his junior level position, he saw critical maintenance being neglected, engineering logs being “gun decked,” and mismanagement from the top down. The appearance of efficiency was all that seemed to matter, he told me. The exterior was painted, but underlying rust was not removed. Engines were polished, but critical maintenance was neglected. Decks were waxed, but the crew was incapable of handling a real emergency.

From the captain’s bridge, not a place he spent any time as a junior engineering officer, everything looked fine. The ship glowed, and seemed able to conduct operations. Under the stress of genuine operations however, long-neglected equipment malfunctioned, poorly-trained people made mistakes, and the veneer lost some of its luster.

My son served on Kitty Hawk’s sister carrier three years before Hejl assumed command of Kitty Hawk. Apparently, conditions on Kitty Hawk were no better, and by the time Hejl took command on Aug. 1, 2001, things certainly were even worse. Hejl arrived at Kitty Hawk at the pinnacle of what Navy officials say was a distinguished career. There was no reason for anyone to believe that he would not be up to the task. Nevertheless, he seems to have done nothing to correct the problems that were, by that time, endemic in this aging lady.

In retrospect, Hejl seems to have maintained the superficiality that had preceded him, and was the commander in the skipper’s chair when reality finally intruded. He now occupies a desk somewhere in San Diego. The bottom line for these two ships appears to have been their leaders’ acceptance of appearance over substance in terms of maintaining material readiness.

Two aging carriers will have problems. Everyone understands this. If the ships are important to the system, then funds and directed management will address the problems. With only 12 carriers in active service today, Kitty Hawk and Kennedy, despite their ages, remain important to America’s military needs.

The Navy’s senior leadership has done what needed to be done. The skippers are gone. Kennedy is fully operational, according to her new skipper, Capt. Johnny “Turk” Green; morale is high and things are looking up. Kitty Hawk is on her way to being fully operational, and her new skipper, Capt. Robert Barbaree Jr., is up to the task, by all reports.

The lingering question is, how many other warships have the same potential problems?

For nearly a decade, the Navy, like the other military services, has been favoring appearance over substance. For most junior officers, getting “tickets punched” has been more important that learning a critical military task. Promotion has come to those with punched tickets. This is not to say that getting “tickets punched” is irrelevant, but it should only be an indication of something learned or a task accomplished. The effect has been the emergence of an entire cohort of mid- and upper-level officers who value appearance over substance, who see a log entry as sufficient, instead of completing the underlying task.

It is difficult to point at any one specific factor behind this malaise, but there appear to be several contributing elements. Foremost is the political mindset for most of the 1990s that relegated the U.S. military, and specifically the Navy, to the back burner. The Clinton administration’s drastic cutbacks in military appropriations meant that money simply was not available for critical maintenance and repairs on all but the most important vessels.

During that decade, droves of well-qualified officers left the Navy for better, more rewarding opportunities elsewhere (including my son). It simply was not worth the effort in the Navy, where well-qualified, experienced officers were passed over in favor of flash-and-dash officers who ended up in senior positions charged with the responsibility of overseeing the skippers who were individually responsible for maintaining their ships and systems.

The results were predictable: When senior military leaders do not care, and when your path to higher rank is determined by how you appear instead of how you function, you get Kitty Hawks and Kennedys.

Fortunately, the Navy seems to have responded to this declining situation. It has brought in new officers who understand well these problems, and who are not afraid to take the pruning actions necessary to solve them. There will be more inspection failures and more firings, but the service seems dedicated to resolving them.

Over the next few years, the Navy’s efficiency and its ability to project America’s power and determination at sea will grow exponentially as officers characterized by dedication and determination steadily supplant the cadre of “flash and dash” commanders who allowed such deplorable failures to occur.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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