Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the commander of Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, speaks with Capt. Wayne P. Liebold, the executive officer of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship Essex, on Jan. 5, 2023, in San Diego, California. SWO Boss Kitchener is slated to deliver the keynote address to the Surface Navy Association during the organization's annual gathering in Crystal City, Virginia, on Jan. 10, 2023. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stevin Atkins.
Despite a string of collisions, ship fires, and other woes over the past six years, the Navy’s SWO Boss appears poised to paint a rosier picture of the fleet in his annual keynote address to the Surface Navy Association near the Pentagon.
During a roundtable discussion with national security reporters on Thursday, Jan. 5, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said his speech will focus on “sharpening the competitive edge,” especially preparing for “potentially, conflict in the Western Pacific” with China, Russia, or North Korea.
Kitchener, the three-star commander of Naval Surface Forces and the guided-missile escort warships of the US Pacific Fleet, said he’s pushing to have 75 warships available for combat on any given day worldwide, a number that doesn’t include expeditionary sea bases and the trio of experimental Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers.
And Kitchener’s drive for 75 has triggered what he called “an enduring campaign” of reforms to how vessels are scheduled for maintenance; equipped and staffed for deployments; and their officers and crews trained for combat.
“This transformation, particularly in the organizational structure, is gonna be a journey,” he said. “And we cannot deviate, lag, or delay. We’re going to need industry. We’re going to need Congress. We’re going to need Big Navy, all to support us in this effort. And I think we’re on the way to doing that.”
On Oct. 17, 2022, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the commander of Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, toured the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Dewey before presenting its crew with the prestigious Battle Effectiveness award. The warship was moored in Yokosuka, Japan. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kelby Sanders.
To drive home his reform message, SWO Boss was joined on the call with reporters by Rear Adm. Brendan McLane, the commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic; Rear Adm. Theodore LeClair, who’s tasked with revamping the Navy’s littoral combat ship program; and Rear Adm. Fred Pyle, the N96 director who helps set surface combat force levels and guides the programs that arm everything from Ticonderoga-class cruisers to the mine sweepers and patrol boats plying the Persian Gulf.
Kitchner said he’s beefing up the staffs overseeing destroyer and amphibious warship squadrons to give them more oversight of their vessels at sea and in shipyards.
His review teams have pinpointed how much wear and tear nibbles at a warship on deployment, so he has a better grasp on how long they can take to sea before breaking, and what headaches commanders will face when they take their vessels into drydock.
But SWO Boss still hasn't reached his 75-ship goal, and he won’t say how far the Navy lags behind it because the number is classified.
Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility riggers undock the guided-missile destroyer William P. Lawrence from Dry Dock 4 on Oct. 21, 2021. US Navy photo by Public Affairs Specialist Amanda Cartagena-Urena.
LCS czar LeClair , however, disclosed that before 2020, technological glitches — especially defective combining gears — turned more than half of the Navy’s littoral combat fleet into permanent pier fixtures, unable to put to sea.
But it’s “up in the 70s, and 80s, now, with our 4th Fleet and 5th Fleet deployments,” he said.
Kitchener added that retention rates are holding steady, with roughly 35% of his surface force sailors deciding to re-up in the Navy, and he’s pairing chaplains with destroyer crews to spot and shore up suicide and other mental health concerns.
Although internal Navy investigations blamed poor seamanship, chronic leadership failures, and incompetent watchstanding on the 2017 destroyer collisions that drowned 17 sailors in the Western Pacific, SWO Boss insisted “the competency training we’ve gotten, we’re beyond that one.”
“Everyone is pretty happy with our professional competence we give on the mariners’ skillset,” he continued. “More work has been coming out this year on tactical training.”
On June 17, 2017, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald returned to Fleet Activities Yokosuka following a collision with a Philippine-flagged cargo vessel while operating off Japan. The mishap killed seven US sailors. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart.
SWO Boss and his team didn’t take any questions from Coffee or Die Magazine, which cribbed insights from current and past surface warfare officers, career chiefs, and their sailors before Kitchener convened his talk with Pentagon reporters.
They included fears voiced by surface warfare officers about what they say is plunging morale plaguing commanders and lieutenant commanders across the fleet.
Other shipmates were worried about a toxic culture built on a zero-defect mentality by Big Navy’s brass, which they believe is turning officers into risk-averse desk jockeys instead of daring sea dogs.
And some sailors kvetched about long stays in the yard and wanted to know what measurements SWO Boss uses to track and tackle maintenance delays.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Decatur conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the Henry J. Kaiser-class fleet oiler Guadalupe as the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill approaches, on Dec. 31, 2022, in the Philippine Sea. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jordan Jennings.
One chief pointed to the looming retirement of the guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill and its aging Tico sisterhood.
If the primary anti-ballistic missile screen will be orchestrated in the near future by Flight III destroyers, for example, will those warships also form into surface warfare groups, or hunt enemy submarines? Or will they be confined to aircraft carrier escort duties?
And what about the proliferation of cheap aerial drones and anti-ship ballistic missiles? Which of those threats causes SWO Boss to lose the most sleep?
Those questions went unanswered.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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