Three aircraft carriers of the US Navy UU – the largest and most sophisticated warships in history – badembled in front of the Korean Peninsula, in a movement scheduled to coincide with the first official visit by US President Donald Trump to the region.
dramatic demonstration of strength, doubts are emerging as to whether the United States Navy is up to the challenges it faces in the Pacific, both from a North Korea with nuclear weapons and from a strengthening of China, in a moment in which its main leaders recognize that it lacks money, manpower and weapons to ensure success. And when a mbadive corruption scandal threatens the ranks of dozens of its senior officers.
The exercise of three carriers, carried out at the beginning of November with South Korean and Japanese warships, was just one of the approximately 160 multilateral and bilateral exercises carried out this year in the area of operations supervised by the 7th Navy Fleet, a spokesman for the Navy told CNN. That is approximately one exercise every two days.
And the pace of operations is not slowing.
Did you stretch too much?
Just two days after the three aircraft carriers – the USS Ronald Reagan, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz, and their attack groups with several ships – concluded four days of war against Korea, the USS Ronald Reagan, with its air wing and three guided missile destroyers, began a 10-day drill with Japanese naval units off Okinawa.
While the US exercises try to rebadure Asian allies and show North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the United States will not be intimidated by Pyongyang's tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the actions also highlight concerns that the 7th Pies is stretching too much.
The number of victims in operations in the Pacific has been bleak this year.
Two US guided missile destroyers, USS Fitzgerald and USS John S McCain, suffered collisions with merchant ships, leaving 17 American sailors dead and the two warships in need of hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs.
The accidents, against Japan and Singapore, respectively, also left the Navy wondering how two of the most sophisticated ships in the seas could not even navigate the crowded sea lanes.
Tuesday January 31:
USS Antietam stranded in Tokyo Bay
The USS Antietam, a guided missile cruiser, damaged its propellers and spilled hydraulic oil into the water after run aground while the ship was anchoring in Tokyo Bay.
Tuesday May 9:
The USS Lake Champlain collides with a fishing boat from South Korea
The guided missile cruise was hit by a South Korean from 60 to 70 feet Long fishing boat while conducting operations in international waters near the Korean Peninsula, the Navy said.
Saturday June 17:
USS Fitzgerald collides with Philippine cargo ship
The collision between Fitzgerald, guided missile destroyer, and ACX Crystal on June 17 took life of seven American sailors. It took place 56 nautical miles off the coast of Honshu, Japan, in an area heavily trafficked by commercial vessels.
Monday, August 21:
USS John S McCain collides with an oil tanker in front of Singapore  The guided missile destroyer in the USA. UU He collided with a Liberian tanker on the crowded sea routes off Singapore, leaving 10 American sailors dead and five more wounded. The accident left a large hole very visible on the American ship.
Saturday November 18:
USS Benfold hit by a Japanese tugboat
The USS Benfold guided missile destroyer was hit by a Japanese tugboat while participating in a scheduled towing drill in Japan . The tugboat lost propulsion and was diverted to the US ship, the Navy said. No one was injured.
A report from the US Government Accountability Office. UU In September he warned that long deployments of US-based vessels in Japan, such as Fitzgerald and McCain had been at the time of their collisions, often result in key training requirements. neglected due to the demands of operational duties, something the report describes as a "problem".
Without training time, "atrophy of perishable skills," said Carl Schuster, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University who spent 10 years "driving" American warships.
"Military commandos are like a football team, you have to practice constantly," Schuster added.
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee as part of an investigation into the series of fatal crashes and collisions at sea, Officer No. 2 of the Navy, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran, He said the Navy is trying to do too much with too little.
"We still have a supply and demand problem that is putting a lot of pressure on the force," Moran said.
"All these things culminate with this notion that we are not". Big enough to do everything that has been entrusted to us, "Moran added." And our culture is, we're going to do it, "because that's what the Navy is about. And sometimes our culture works against us. "
It's a shared opinion throughout the naval establishment, where frustrations are mounting about the growing set of operational demands on the 7th Fleet.
In a testimony delivered to Congress In September, John Pendleton, director of defense and management capacity at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said the Navy was operating what people in the service call a "train on the margins" approach.
That means that the boats did not have dedicated training time, but they fit what they could in the time of missions, said Pendleton.
Exhausted teams can make bad decisions, as Schuster points out, in the case of the Fitzgerald collision. , the service officers did not wake up the sleeping captain when the warship was within reach of the merchant ship.
"They were incredibly complacent or careless. beyond all description, "said Schuster.
The Navy has launched multiple investigations, a safety pause and revisions in the wake of recent accidents.
During a hearing at the House Armed Services Committee hearing in September, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said the revisions include a "comprehensive badysis" led by naval operations that "take a look at the tactical situation and operational ", as well as a departmental" strategic preparation review "that he said will involve" an independent team composed of military and industry experts "that will look at and examine root causes, responsibility, long-term systemic problems and then provide information corrective "
" We are taking immediate corrective measures to make sure we comply with the training and material preparation standard to avoid another setback, "Richardson said.
The Navy has also taken several personnel actions, including firing the commanders of the Fitzgerald and the McCain, several other senior officers, as well as the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, the first time that a fleet commander has been relieved of his duty in the Navy's history. US
Aucoin, who had been commander of the fleet since September 2015, was fired "due to a loss of confidence in his command capacity."
F / A-18 Hornets fly over US and South Korean war during an exercise off the Korean peninsula.
The Navy's internal report on the Fitzgerald-McCain collisions, launched in early November, I just cut the corners to meet the demands of the ships of the 7th Fleet had become the norm.
"The risks that were taken in the western Pacific accumulated over time, and they did so insidiously," the report said. "The dynamic environment was normalized to the point where individuals and groups of people could no longer recognize that the established processes to identify and evaluate preparedness no longer functioned at the ship and headquarters level."
Surveys of sailors on board Japan – the guided missile cruise based on USS Shiloh conducted between June 2015 and August this year points to severe moral problems.
The survey responses, which span hundreds of pages and list a variety of complaints, including suicidal thoughts and despair, also show that young sailors were worried about receiving severe punishment from the Shiloh then – commander, captain. Adam M. Aycoc, including having been placed in the dungeon and fed only with "bread and water".
"Even taxi drivers at the base know us for being the 'USS & # 39; Pan and water," said one respondent.
Top commanders recognize that the Navy may be asking too much of its sailors, ships and planes.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of the US Naval Air Force. UU., He detailed the extraordinary measures that the Navy now has to take to air fully equipped aircraft carrier groups, due to the low stock of work equipment, including fighter jets and trained personnel.
"To get Carl Vinson, Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt ready to deploy in January, June and October of this year, and equip their airborne wings with the requisite number of mission-ready jets, 94 fighters had to be transferred, to and from maintenance depots, or between F-18 squadrons on both coasts, "said Shoemaker.
In September, Moran said hundreds of pieces were cannibalized from some F / A-18s and used in others to prepare aircraft-based squads ready for combat.
A congressional aide told CNN that having to change 94 fighters to equip three aircraft carriers is "crazy."
The problem also directly impacted sailors and pilots aboard those ships as the Navy was forced to fill gaps in which squadrons deployed and the three aircraft carriers temporarily rebadigned more than 300 sailors or extending their deployments beyond the normal lengths, said Shoemaker. 19659002] Such moves, which Shoemaker called a "projectile game" of striker wrestlers, hurt morale, which means that personnel do not sign up to extend their naval careers, leaving vacant posts and years of training and experience wasted.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, applauded the Navy for performing exercises with three carriers near the Korean Peninsula, but also highlighted several of the deficiencies that affect the service.
"Too often exercises like this, which are critical to maintaining tactical competence, are sacrificed due to higher priority operations, maintenance delays or fiscal constraints," McCain said in a written statement.
"While this exercise is encouraging, the reality is that our Navy does not have sufficient funds, it is excessive and too small," he said.
Navy commanders previously warned that years of spending cuts have limited the number of planes and ships – a problem that has only intensified amid the growing demands of the US military presence. UU
For the 7th Navy Fleet, the largest of the Navy's numbered fleets, that means being on the lookout for North Korea's provocations, including ready ships that could shoot down ballistic missiles bound for Japan, Guam or even the continental territory of the United States. Those ships included the Fitzgerald, John S McCain and Shiloh.
In total, the area of operation of the 7th. Fleet covers more than 124 million square kilometers, from the International Date Line to India. Border with Pakistan; and from the Kuril Islands in the North to the Antarctic in the south.
As far as China is concerned, in particular, neither Obama's administrations nor Trump's have transferred their forces to the Pacific in sufficient numbers or capacities, said James R. Holmes, professor of strategy at US Naval War College.
"China has come to this understanding of common sense, and understands that it can reduce adversary maritime services just by being active in its 'near seas', mainly in the seas of China," said Holmes. "Imposing a quick op-amp on your opponent, which means keeping him moving all the time, wearing him down over time, and although that has not been a direct cause of this year's mishaps, it does contribute to the fatigue of the crew, to reduce the training time, and thus exacerbate the factors that our Navy cited in its recent collision reports. "
In response, the Navy has two options, said Holmes. "We can build our armada at a level where I can do all of these things without wearing down equipment and equipment, or we can pivot" or "balance out" more of our forces with the theater of the Pacific. "
Holmes points out that, although it is large, the 7th Fleet represents only a part of the US Navy. UU "If we can no longer dominate opponents in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, then we must make some difficult decisions about where to apply most of our effort, and accept that that means accepting the risk in the other theater."
F / A-18 Hornets fly from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier on the Korean peninsula in March. US officials say they have had to look for parts to keep the flying F / A-18s.
The corruption scandal
The operational problems of the Navy can be addressed, experts say. But that's without dealing with the biggest corruption scandal in US naval history. UU
The current scandal has seen 20 current and former Navy officials charged so far with an investigation of fraud and bribery in Asia.
Known as the scandal called "Fat Leonard", the investigation focuses on former defense contractor Leonard Glenn "Fat Leonard" Francis, whose company served Navy ships, including fuel and tugboats.
Since the investigation began in 2013, several Navy officials have been arrested and charged with accepting cash, prostitutes and travel with all expenses paid. exchange to direct the ships to the ports where the Francis company operated.
In June, Michael Brooks, who served as US naval attaché. UU at the US Embbady UU in the Philippines between 2006 and 2008, he was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison after admitting to using his influence to benefit Francis in exchange for "bribes of travel and entertainment expenses, hotel rooms and services of prostitutes," the Department said. of Justice.
The 7th United States Fleet this year has participated in approximately 160 drills with other countries, including this one with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The coming storm
The United States Pacific Fleet was first established in 1907, although it can trace its origins well beyond the formation of the Pacific Squadron in 1821. Since then, it has seen its Size grow in line with its overall strategic importance, since Asia – and East Asia in particular – became a focal point of US foreign policy. UU
But the goal also means to keep functioning what is in the fleet, and that's not an easy task.
Maintenance delays are currently on the margin of 11 navy ships, a congressional aide told CNN.
A September report from the Government Accountability Office found that Navy shipyard facilities and equipment in disrepair with a restoration and maintenance delay of at least 19 years to clear.
Legislators often cited the budget caps implemented by Congress and President Barack Obama in 2011, along with the high demand for fleet services, as key factors contributing to the Navy's lack of fiscal flexibility. " , said the report.
Inadequate facilities and equipment caused maintenance delays that contributed in part to more than 1,300 lost operating days – days when ships were not available for operations – for aircraft carriers and 12,500 lost operating days for submarines, "according to the report.
The littoral USS Coronado fighter fired a Harpoon missile during the Pacific Griffin exercise, carried out with the Singaporean Navy.
At the beginning of November, the House of Representatives approved an annual defense bill that, if approved by the Senate, would authorize the full submission of the maintenance budget requested by the Navy and provide additional funds for more aircraft.
"This year's National Defense Authorization Act will address this problem by increasing funds for the Navy, including the authorization of five additional ships and hundreds of millions of dollars for maintenance above and beyond the request of the President's budget, "McCain said in a statement.
But although the defense bill is a move in the right direction, the authorized funding will not solve the problem of preparation, a problem that will take years to address, according to Randy Forbes, a former US representative. UU He served as chairman of the subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces of the Chamber.
"This is not a faucet that can be turned on and off," Forbes said, referring to defense funding. "If we get into a conflict you will fight with what you have, so it is important to project what you need."
And although Forbes recognized the need for the Navy to flex its muscles through exercises like those held near Korea, the US said. UU they must address the "decreasing capacity" of the fleet, since a possible conflict will probably require a response from more than three operators to carry out the operations plan.
To ensure that its attack groups can respond to an emerging conflict, the United States must launch a course to "rebuild the Navy," Forbes told CNN.
"Current mathematics will not work," Forbes said. "It will take a general reconstruction of the Navy to face the challenges around the world."