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the US surface fleet may not be adequately trained for high-intensity combat, four experienced former skippers and the former deputy secretary of defense warned a US Naval Institute conference here on Monday.

“Navigation and seamanship, these are the fundamental capabilities which every surface warfare officer should have, but I suspect if called to war, we’ll be required to do a lot more than safely navigate the Singapore strait,” where the destroyer USS McCain collided with an oil tanker, said retired Capt. Kevin Eyer, former skipper of the cruisers ShilohChancellorsville, and Thomas Gates. “If our surface forces are unable to successfully execute these fundamental blocking and tackling tasks, how can it be possibly be expected that they are also able to do the much more complex warfighting tasks?”

Navy photo

This summer, the Navy lost 17 sailors and crippled two destroyers in peacetime accidents, a clear sign the fleet has been run ragged by day-to-day demands to show the flag around world. The fleet, argues former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work is demonstrating presence at the expense of training for high-intensity warfighting.

What are some of the effects? When officers join the Naval War College’s elite Halsey Group that studies high intensity warfighting, Work said, they need remedial briefings on the full capabilities of the very systems they’ve been using at sea.

“When they get new people coming in from the fleet, the have to spend a lot of time trying to tell them this is what the Aegis combat system can do, this is what the RAM, the Rolling Airframe Missile, can do,” Work said. “We are not prepared anywhere near what we need to be.”

While the US Navy has hunted pirates and fired Tomahawks at static targets, a conflict with a near-peer navy like Russia’s or China‘s, or even a well-armed regional power like North Korea or Iran, requires those specialized skills that sailors and skippers have had little chance to practice.

“I have full confidence that every Aegis ship can go out there and engage airborne targets,” Eyer said, referring to the anti-aircraft and anti-missile system standard on destroyers and cruisers. But intercepting ballistic missiles like North Korea’s is an even more demanding task requiring special training that many crews may not have.

“Every time a ship gets prepared to do a SM-3 shot, quite literally, a team of rocket scientists comes on board and they groom the system,” Eyer said. “If we took all the BMD-capable ships in the fleet out and we lined them up, and North Korea launched something, how many of them could successfully engage?”

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