Navy Training Undercut by Fraudulent Reports

Those who have not served in the U.S. Navy may not fully grasp just how complicated it is running a modern man-of-war.  The smallest fighting vessels (typically submarines) have about a hundred crew members and the largest – aircraft carriers – top 5,000.

Consider what it takes to maintain a floating city with 5,000 citizens. A typical carrier will serve about 10,000 eggs each day accompanied by a thousand loaves of bread, washed down with a thousand gallons of milk. Remember, this is per day. A typical deployment will see over 2 million meals served. And don’t forget about the garbage, the sewage, the banks, doctors, dentists, barbers, etc.

The annual carrier payroll is close to $100 million.

The United States has 12 active carriers, 27 cruisers, 53 destroyers (with 9 under construction), 53 fast attack submarines (with 4 under construction), 18 ballistic missile subs (two of which are undergoing conversion), and countless auxiliary ships for nearly every purpose imaginable from troop transport to at-sea refueling.

Under battle conditions, it is essential that every ship involved in the fighting is on the same page, following the same plan, and – in general – moving in consort. How do you make this happen?

For quite some time, the U.S. Navy has resorted to Fleet Exercise Publications – FXPs for short. An entire branch of the service, the Naval Warfare Development Command (NWDC), is dedicated to writing, coordinating, updating and disseminating these massive documents. In today’s world, of course, much of the dissemination is electronic, or at least on CD-ROMs, to reduce paperwork to a minimum.

Because of their security classification, FXPs are not available to the press or public. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern their characteristics without compromising their security or endangering the fleet.

The fundamental idea is to map every detail of an operation into a structured exercise that can be planned and executed piece by piece as the opportunities present themselves. Significantly, completion of FXPs is not optional. They must be completed in the timeframe specified, or a ship loses its battle certification (and typically, the skipper loses his job).

My sources report that throughout the fleet today, FXPs are routinely “completed,” but sometimes in surprising – and fraudulent — ways. For example, a young officer aboard a guided missile cruiser reported to me on a recent FXP designed to track and destroy an enemy submarine. The FXP called for a complete track culminated by a “kill.” What actually happened, however, was that the CIC team “spotted” the submarine (an American fast attack) once for a few seconds, and then laid out a “track,” and eventually reported a definite “kill.” In fact, but for the one contact, they never saw the submarine again.

On another occasion, he reported that the sonar team went for some on-shore training in tracking enemy submarines. Since this training closely matched a designated FXP, the ship falsely took credit for this FXP, reporting it accomplished to the squadron commander.

Another officer reported to me off the record that he had written up an FXP report related to a missile firing exercise against a drone – not only was it a miss, but the missile never actually fired. He happened to see the outgoing report during watch time in Communications. The outgoing report had been completely rewritten by his department head: no mention of any misfiring. According to the revised report, the exercise went smoothly and the FXP was completed per its specifications.

This not to say that most Navy skippers do not strive to complete their exercises and build up their crew training as high as possible. In the real world, however, “completing” the FXP has taken precedence over acquiring the actual training. Since not completing an FXP is not an option, all FXPs are “completed.”

This form-over-substance approach was examined in detail for two conventional carriers last week (“Lessons From Two Aging Aircraft Carriers,” DefenseWatch Oct. 2, 2002), with the conclusion that the Navy is finally addressing this serious problem by the simple expedience of rooting out the people responsible for the underlying mindset — firing commanders who cannot or will not perform and replacing them with officers who demand substance.

An interesting footnote to that article is an email sent to DefenseWatch by a retired chief machinist mate who wrote: “I believe that the Navy has paid little if any attention to a glaring problem. It is abundantly clear that the chief petty officers assigned to the fleet are not doing their jobs! ‘Gun decking’ logs and records, faulty equipment, etc. is their responsibility. As a former chief machinist mate, I am fully aware of which I speak.”

I agree that a portion of the fault for what has happened lies with the senior enlisted personnel, but the majority of the responsibility lies with the senior officers, the ones who made sure that submitted reports were “clean” and contained no damaging information – the form-over-substance guys.

This same problem has driven the FXP system for more than a decade. I don’t have any direct evidence that it is changing, but judging from what already happened to the skippers of the USS John F. Kennedy and the USS Kitty Hawk, senior navy commanders appear no longer willing to accept “perfect” FXP scores. They seem to be asking the hard questions, and supplying the needed training funds so that a checkmark on an FXP completion printout actually indicates ship’s proficiency in that area.

It will take a while to weed out all the gun-deckers and their form-over-substance officers, but each fired commanding officer drives home the point that substance really matters again in the United States Navy.

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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