Tags: budget, Rachael Gosnell
“Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”
– Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister
While the details of the budget cuts are still being debated, one thing is clear: the Department of Defense will face significant fiscal austerity. Accordingly, the Navy will face drastic cuts that mandate a reexamination of the way we do business.
Viewed another way, however, we are being presented with the opportunity to rethink the standard business rules governing the way we train, fight and prepare for future challenges – we should examine the best, most innovative ways to accomplish our strategic objectives. Given the tough budget and strategic challenges we are facing, “business as usual” just won’t work any more.
The surface fleet will be particularly hard hit. Surface ships will almost certainly see underway time for training and readiness cut. Deployments to engage in regions such as Central and South America are being curtailed. These decisions risk sending the message to our allies that we are no longer forward and present in the Central and South American region where we have provided a maritime presence for well over a century.
Yet the reduction in underway time and the elimination of planned deployments to SOUTHCOM may not necessarily spell doom for both training opportunities and engagements with our friends to the South. Although many view these two efforts as mutually exclusive, perhaps we can do both at once.
Typically, training days occur in operational areas (OPAREAS) off the coast of fleet concentration areas such as San Diego or Norfolk, with ships performing drills while driving mindless “circles in the ocean” and maintaining station in the OPAREA. After a few days or perhaps a week, the ships return to homeport. In the basic phase of the training cycle, the ship will operate alone, or perhaps rendezvous with an oiler to receive fuel and supplies. There is little interaction with other vessels; whales are often a greater concern than merchant traffic.
I would argue we could achieve more “return on investment” by combining training with actual operations. Drills could be run while in transit, or even in conjunction with allies. A US naval vessel conducting engineering drills off the coast of Guatemala provides a visible presence, interaction with local fishing and merchant vessels, and a reminder to potential drug smugglers that the US Navy is still watching – without actually engaging in complex counter-drug ops. Man overboard drills can be conducted just as easily off the coast of Costa Rica as in the San Diego OPAREA.
Heading south for training would require additional logistical considerations, such as stores, fuel, and advance coordination with allied nations if a ship desires to have joint drills, yet these obstacles are not insurmountable, given the resources are slated for training regardless of where the training actually occurs. Spending a couple of days transiting from San Diego to the waters of Central America would require careful management of fuel, but this would sharpen fuel conservation skills. Longer training periods could call on oiler support, possibly from those oilers that would no longer have to service the SOCAL OPAREA.
This approach of combining training with low-risk operational missions would provide more realistic training than sitting in an OPAREA that merchant and fishing vessels know to avoid, leaving the area largely devoid of contacts and providing artificiality to casualty response. As most mariners have experienced, Murphy’s Law suggests that casualties will occur at the worst possible time – perhaps when surrounded by a squid-fishing fleet or tankers transiting to the busy ports of Asia.
While it is necessary to ‘crawl’ before we run, there is no reason we can’t accomplish training in a low risk environment instead of a no risk environment. Crews would gain valuable experience in conducting emergency response operations in foreign waters, requiring them to deal with challenges such as merchant traffic, fishing fleets, language barriers, and unfamiliar territory – critical skills for deployment. “Train like you fight” should not just be a slogan, especially when we can achieve multiple strategic objectives at once by taking on just a bit more risk.
With the Navy looking to reduce deployments to Central and South America in favor of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, this operational training approach provides something for nothing. By combining training with operations we can assure our allies while better preparing for the challenges of deployment. Sure, we are assuming a bit more risk by conducting training a bit farther from home. But just as surely, drilling circles in the ocean off San Diego for a week before returning to homeport is a luxury we can no longer afford.