15 July 2011
When I saw the picture above, my immediate thought was “How did we do this?” How were we able to send a 50 year old aircraft carrier, USS ENTERPRISE, on a 6 month deployment transiting over 56,000 miles, conduct 7,764 sorties while on station (1,500 of those combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan), meet all theater security goals, and even answer the call four times to support counter-piracy operations before bringing her home? How is it possible that this great ship, commissioned in November 1961 (as an experiment) before the vast majority of our current Sailors were even born, was capable of carrying out the same exact missions we’ve just sent our newest carrier, USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH, to execute on her maiden deployment? To put ENTERPRISE’s age in perspective for you, she was one of four carriers ordered to support the blockade against Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
As I reflect about what it was that made ENTERPRISE so capable for so long, two essential factors come to mind: A steady investment, over time, in the ship and a comparable investment, over time, in our people.
Investment in our Ships
Our ships are built with the expectation that they will reach their expected service life. If we underfund or shortcut ship maintenance availabilities, we inevitably run the risk of decreasing the service life and the combat capabilities of our ships. We also make it more difficult for our crews to overcome these investment “deficits” in their ships and keep them maintained in satisfactory condition. As a result, we sometimes struggle with INSURV inspections and back ourselves into the corner of having to allocate an inordinate amount of resources and efforts to get them over the “hump” (e.g. OAK HILL and recently VICKSBURG) for INSURV.
Operational demand for our Naval Forces has grown considerably over the past ten years. Our ships are in every part of the world conducting a wide range of missions – supporting combat operations in Afghanistan, counter-piracy operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, drug interdiction, etc. This increase in demand has put an increased burden on our ships as we’ve had to extend deployment cycles and shorten – and sometimes outright delay or cancel – needed (and required) maintenance availabilities.
As I’ve discussed in detail in previous posts, we’ve made decisions in our Surface Force over the last two decades that have had unintended consequences with respect to our ability to properly operate and maintain our ships, but we are now taking the right steps to get back on track (see here, here, here and here).
Investments in our People
The other side of ensuring the sustainment and wholeness of our ships is properly investing in our people. In addition to the maintenance improvements discussed in the links above, we’re returning Sailors to ships, re-manning RMCs, and re-starting SWOS Basic. I’ve made the commitment to our Sailors to give them the resources they need to take their ships to sea, and I have every intention to deliver on that promise. What we’ll need from our crews in return is that they take ownership of their ships. All these improvements we’re making will have real impact, but only if our crews – our Wardrooms, CPO Messes and Sailors – take ownership and use these tools to maximum effectiveness.
The situation with respect to manning and maintaining our ships will never be perfect – it never has been – but I need our Sailors to get the most out of the tools, training and time we’re giving them. And most of all, I need them to feel a strong sense of ownership for their ships. I want our Sailors to truly believe they have the ability to take their ship to sea, fix it and fight it. And when they move on to other duties, I want them to pass that sense of ownership on to their reliefs with pride. Just as our Sailors have been doing on the “The Big E” for over 50 years.
When we invest in our Sailors, we get quality people who can produce quality work. The quality of our Sailors is, without a doubt, the number one factor that impacts our Navy’s readiness. I have worked with some very talented and professional Sailors over my career, but it is very clear to me that the quality of our force today is by far the greatest I have ever seen it.
Right now we’re making many improvements to our ship maintenance processes and procedures; we’re bringing our Sailors back to the waterfront; and we’re investing the necessary resources to give them the tools, training, and time they need to deploy confident in their ability to execute the missions we give them. It’s now time to bring it all together and reinvigorate a sense of ownership for our Ships, to strengthen our collective culture – from leadership to the deckplate, recognize what we need to do to keep our ships whole and our crews well-trained and then find the wherewithal to do just that.
The Big E, just returned today from another deployment, should be the example for how we get all our ships to their expected service life, ready to fight every day.
All the best, JCHjr