Losing the next war

Don’t be surprised if the first naval battle of the 21st century goes unexpectedly poorly for the US Navy:

A three-month internal review conducted by senior U.S. surface fleet leaders found some or significant concerns with the ship handling skills of nearly 85 percent of its junior officers, and that many struggled to react decisively to extricate their ship from danger when there was an immediate risk of collision, according to an internal message obtained by Defense News.

Led by the Surface Warfare Officer School, officer of the deck competency checks were conducted on a random selection of OOD-qualified first-tour division officers (the newest officers in the fleet) in underway bridge navigation simulators fleet-wide between January and March. Of the 164 officers who were evaluated, only 27 passed with “no concerns.” Another 108 completed with “some concerns,” and 29 had “significant concerns,” according to the message, which was released by the Navy’s top surface warfare officer Vice Adm. Richard Brown.

Brown, who leads Naval Surface Force Pacific, termed the results “sobering.”

The evaluations raise distressing questions about the level of ship handling training junior officers get both prior to their arrival at their first command and when they arrive. In a Tuesday interview with Defense News at the Pentagon, Brown said the checks would be used to inform new training in development for young officers and that changes were already underway that show the Navy is serious about self-assessment and improvement in the wake of the twin disasters that claimed the lives of 17 sailors last summer.

Among the shortfalls identified in the checks:

  • Officers struggled with operating radars and the associated tools at hand, an issue that emerged in the wake of the Fitzgerald accident.
  • Officers had a firm grasp of the international rules of the road for navigating ships at sea, but struggled to apply them practically during watch standing, especially in low-visibility situations.
  • Most officers were able to keep clear of close encounters with other ships in the simulator but those that found themselves in extremis “were often ill-equipped to take immediate action to avoid collisions”

The big advantage of the US Navy in the past – the fact that it was comprised of relatively intelligent American men – no longer exists. The Chinese Navy hasn’t caught up technologically yet, but it already possesses a considerably more intelligent officer corps that will likely prove to be more competent as well.

The US was defeated in the Syrian war-by-proxy by a much smaller, much less well-equipped Russian force, in much the same way the IDF was defeated by Hezbollah in 2006. It is very unlikely that this defeat passed unnoticed by military strategists around the world, or that it will be the last one suffered by the US military.