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The Navy Is at a Breaking Point. Here’s Who Can Save It.

Two days ago, USS John S. McCain, an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, apparently suffered a steering gear failure and collided with an oil tanker in the Singapore Strait. The McCain was severely damaged and five sailors were injured. Worse, 10 sailors are still missing and presumed dead; the remains of some have already been found in the ship.

If this were an isolated incident, it would be troubling enough; guided missile destroyers that cost $1.6 billion a piece should not collide with oil tankers, for any reason. Unfortunately, though, this is just the latest in a string of high-profile embarrassments that call the U.S. Navy’s basic operational competence into question.

In June the USS Fitzgerald, also a Burke class destroyer, collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan. Seven sailors died, drowned while trapped in their flooded berthing compartment. In May, the USS Lake Champlain, a Ticonderoga class cruiser, collided with a South Korean fishing vessel in an incident that fortunately resulted in minimal damage and no injuries or deaths. Eighteen months ago, two U.S. Navy patrol boats in the Persian Gulf experienced a mechanical failure while transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain and were adrift at sea for a short time. Unfortunately, the minor mechanical failure was magnified by gross navigational incompetence; the two patrol boats were behind schedule and either got lost or tried to take a shortcut. Either way, the boats wound up in Iranian territorial waters. The Iranian Navy took the boats and crew into custody, where the American officer in charge offered both an apology to his Iranian captors and his gratitude for their hospitality.

A warship has two responsibilities that never go away. First, the ship has to be able to deploy worldwide. Second, the ship has to be able to fight effectively once it gets there. Leave aside the part about fighting; as the recent failures show, the Navy can’t even reliably get to the fight right now without losing power to steering equipment, running into a civilian container ship, getting lost and captured, or having its propulsion gearing break down.

While it is easy to blame the Navy for these high-profile failures—and no doubt Navy leadership will respond vigorously to these mishaps—the real problem lies elsewhere, specifically with the legislative and executive branches of the government. For the better part of a decade, the legislative branch has failed in its obligation to provide adequate funding to the Navy for maintenance of ships and training of crews. At the same time, the executive branch continues to task the Navy with operational commitments far in excess of what the materiel condition of the fleet can sustain. The Navy has responded with its traditional can-do attitude, continuing to do more with less, using ships and crews that aren’t receiving the support necessary to sustain operations.

As a result, the Navy is now at or very close to a breaking point, struggling to safely and effectively operate worldwide under a heavy burden of deferred maintenance and training. Deferring maintenance and training eventually leads to a literal death spiral—the longer ships go without scheduled maintenance, the more likely they are to break down. When they do break down, repairs are more expensive than preventive maintenance.

The time has come to stop talking about the problem and start fixing it. Either the legislative branch needs to allocate adequate funding for the maintenance of ships and training of crews, or the executive branch needs to reduce the Navy’s operational commitments to a sustainable level. The Navy has operated professionally and effectively since 1775; it knows how to deploy and fight. But it needs adequate support from the government to do so safely and correctly, or the comedy of fatal errors will continue.

Christopher Harmer is a retired commander in the U.S. Navy and a senior naval analyst (non-resident) at the Institute for the Study of War. This article represents his personal views.