Congressional investigators and military officials warned repeatedly about overworked sailors, shortened training schedules and budget cuts in the years leading up to two fatal collisions involving U.S. Navy ships, government auditors, lawmakers and Pentagon officials said.

The collisions in June and earlier this week, both Navy guided-missile destroyers operating in the Pacific, left 17 sailors dead or missing.

Three reports in the past two years by the Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog agency, spell out endemic problems. They found through interviews and Navy studies that U.S. sailors overseas often arrive to their assigned ships without adequate skills and experience. They end up on duty for an average of 108 hours a week, instead of the Navy-standard of 80 hours, the reports found.

“Experienced sailors routinely provide on-the-job training for less experienced sailors, so the time doing this must come out of sleep, personal time, or other allotted work time,” according to a May 2017 GAO report.

John Pendleton, the Government Accountability Office official who wrote the three reports, is scheduled to testify Sept. 7 on Capitol Hill. Mr. Pendleton and Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s surface forces commander, plan to appear before subpanels of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressional aides said they have long known about the stress on the Navy that has resulted from an erosion in training and equipment.

“We know that the Navy is less than half the size it was in the 1980s, but the operational demands have not declined,” said a House Republican aide.

The problems have been notably acute overseas. A September 2016 GAO report concluded that while the Navy fleet has decreased by 18% since 1998, it still has maintained 100 ships overseas during that time.

“Consequently, each ship is being deployed more to maintain the same level of presence,” according to the report, which also noted that maintenance has been reduced, deferred or eliminated.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Why it’s on our radar: The Navy is continuing to investigate these incidents, which includes the possibility that U.S. warships’ navigational systems are being hit with cyber attacks, but there is little reason to contest earlier findings that operational tempo combined with budget cuts were not presenting the fleet with additional risks.

However, to hear congressional officials admit that the Legislative Branch has been well aware of the added risks, given that Congress is largely responsible for them, while doing little to mitigate them, is obscene. Going back years to the beginning of the Obama administration, Congress repeatedly funded the military using continuing resolutions instead of bona fide budgets that military service chiefs have practically been begging for, so they better plan funding for various contingencies. Also, legislators agreed to military funding cuts, largely via the Budget Control Act, a.k.a. the “sequester,” while simultaneously backing the Pacific Theater mission creep the Navy has principally been charged with carrying out. 

Two things must happen: Congress needs to start passing annual budgets in conjunction with the White House; and the Navy must be better funded and expanded if it is to continue carrying out its mission requirements. More ships and more sailors are obviously needed to avoid future mishaps which put additional strain on the sea service at a time when it is already struggling to meet demands at a time of increased global volatility.