Interview: Adm. Bill Gortney, US Fleet Forces Command
By VAGO MURADIAN
The Fleet Forces Command, led by Adm. Bill Gortney, is one of the US Navy’s largest, composed of some 100,000 sailors and civilians; about 85 ships, or one-third of the fleet; and more than 1,000 aircraft. Gortney is one of the service’s most influential figures, tasked with setting training standards across the force as well as crafting the master plan known as the Fleet Response Plan that governs how ships, planes and the sailors who man them are deployed. That plan has been tweaked in the wake of budget cuts and is now called the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. It tries to return the Navy to a more sustainable pace of operations, such as more predictable deployments for sailors.
Q. How has sequestration impacted the force?
A. We are just now seeing the indicators of real impacts [from] sequestration. We were able to make some tough choices in the last four months of cutting availabilities, taking air wings down to tactical hard deck, but we are able to get most of that back. We are able to not shut air wings down and buy most of the availabilities back. Our money is in availabilities for surface ships, flying hours for the air wings, and then at [Naval Air Systems Command], who controls the money for depot for aircraft and engines. We had to make some tough choices not to deploy ships and not buy parts, not induct airplanes into depot level, and some of that you can recover from and some of it you can’t.
Q. You did the Optimized Fleet Response Plan [FRP] to improve fleet readiness. Why is that plan so important?
A. Let me answer the last question first. We cannot not afford to do Optimized FRP. We can’t continue with our current readiness generation model, which we call the Fleet Response Plan. The reason what we’ve done in the last seven years of very high-tempo ops is we’ve gotten away from some of our roots and we’ve lost predictability for our sailors, for our sailors’ families, for our consumers of readiness, the [combatant commanders] and for our industrial base. We need to put predictability and adaptability back into our force-generation model.
Q. Why has readiness declined over the past couple of years? Was it cutting short availabilities? Was it too few sailors? Was it sailors weren’t well enough trained?
A. I wouldn’t say readiness has really severely degraded. We’ve always been able to train and produce the sailors and the equipment to do the nation’s bidding. It is how we go about doing it that we got off track. It has cost us more money in the long run to generate the same level of readiness. You have to start at the base. You have to make sure you align everybody to the same time; we have to clean up our chain of command; and then we have to go over the key elements, which is getting our sailors on board the ships and in the squadrons at the right point in their readiness-generation model, that we do the maintenance correctly, the ships and aircraft get in on time and come out on time.
Q. You’ve tried hard to change the fundamental model on how you get guys to the waterfront. Instead of sailors reporting the day before they sail, you want to try to get them before workups so that they are fully trained before the ship deploys. Is that an executable goal?
A. We think it is. To solve this particular problem, it is a classic [of] what we call the readiness kill chain solution. You have to go all the way back to the requirement. Are we recruiting the right sailors? The right number of sailors? Are we getting them through their training pipelines that then gets them in their specialized skill set to then get them into the ships and squadrons at the right time? We’re overmanned at shore and undermanned at sea; we’ve lost 50,000 sailors in the last 10 years. Our goal is to get the right number of sailors with the right skill sets with the right rank at the right level coming out of their maintenance phase.
Q. Are you satisfied that the sailors you are getting are as properly trained as they used to be?
A. Well, there are two parts in the training, and it is really rating-unique. Part of the problem is, are we training to the right content? Are we teaching them the right stuff, the right skill sets? An example is damage controlmen — what we are teaching them in their school is not what we are inspecting them for when we get them out to sea.
The other piece is, are we overtraining them? Are we training them to a level, because it makes sense to spend a year and a half or two years in training and do it all at once — but when they get to their ship they are only using the first three months of their training cycle?
Q. What trade-offs would you recommend to Navy leadership if Congress forces the service to keep the aircraft carrier George Washington in commission, but doesn’t give it more money?
A. Our most stressed forces are carriers and air wings, amphibious ready groups and Marine expeditionary units, and [ballistic missile defense] ships, and the most highly stressed are [explosive ordnance disposal] teams. If you take one carrier out, the GW in this case, and not refuel her, when do we see the effect of that action? We just sent [the carrier George H.W. Bush] out on a nine-and-a-half month deployment — not a sustainable model. We want to get it to eight months. We think that is sustainable over a three-year period, and we can do that with one fewer carrier until GW is supposed to come out of a refueling cycle; and now she is not there and we will go back to nine-and-a-half month deployments.
Q. There are members of Congress who would say the Navy is not going to be permitted to retire GW. Many people say it is unlikely the Navy will get more money, so it will be forced to make a trade-off. If you are made to keep that carrier in service, where else can you make trade-offs?
A. Those are the tough choices that have to be made. One of the examples that we think is a good reversible decision is taking 11 of our 22 cruisers and putting them into a sustainment model where we take them out of the rotation cycle, and we then invest in improvements in the inside as well as modernize the weapons system and then bring them back out. It allows us to preserve that capability for another 15 years so we don’t have to recapitalize those ships for another 15 years. We take 11 out, and then we are able to keep that class of ship going for another 15 years and still execute the mission.
Q. You are potentially losing some older ships but also getting new ships in. The littoral combat ship is coming online, the joint high-speed vessel is another ship, the DDG 1000 destroyer is coming online. What are some of the experiments and things that you are thinking about to define how you will use these ships?
A. First off, you need to remember that our Navy has always had a high/low mix of ships and high/low mix of airplanes on our aircraft carriers. It is striking the right balance. Part of that is [that] in high-end warfare, high can do high and low, but low can never always do high. When it comes to littoral combat ship, we are taking the frigates out.
Q. What can be done to have a more holistic approach to inspections, as opposed to running around doing inspections that may actually be at cross-purposes sometimes?
A. First, you inspect what is important. You have to remember we are not eliminating inspections that are important. What we want to do is, if there is an inspection out there, let it stand on its own merit. Are we doing the inspection because we think we need to do the inspection, or have we just always done it? Then, who does the inspection? Are we inspecting to the same standard another place in the FRP cycle? No one has been in charge of the inspection, and it is an unconstrained model that has gone to 466 in an FRP cycle that is not aligned to any periodicity in an FRP length. Doing smart inspections at the right time is how we are going to go after this, and we will get there.
Q. Over the past 20 years, the Navy has taken sailors and spare parts off its ships, reduced training and outsourced work. Those moves have made the Navy more efficient, but there is concern they will create vulnerabilities in the event of future conflict.
A. We are not a business. We make inefficient decisions on purpose because our most important asset is the lives of our sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. We want to make sure we make the right decisions, and sometimes, from a business case it is the wrong decision, but it is the right decision for war fighting.
I agree with you that we need to reverse some of our decisions when it comes to how much we lean ourselves out in our parts and our just-in-time delivery. I was a carrier strike group commander and I needed a part for [a] Super Hornet [fighter jet] and it was on George Washington, and we were tracking the part all the way from George Washington in Japan.
Q. Electronic emission control is one of the chief of naval operations’ top priorities. My understanding is when doing its [mission control] exercise, the Nimitz made it two hours before it had to start radiating again. What do we have to do to get them to not chatterbox as much?
A. We got away from it. Quite frankly, we didn’t need to worry about it once the Cold War was over, but we need to go after it in a big way. It is electromagnetic warfare at heart and understanding when do we need to radiate, how do we radiate, how do we shut down when it is necessary to shut down? We are going about this for the CNO. We are in charge of it for the fleet. So, what more can we do? We are finishing that up. Every strike group, as they go through training, we have really ramped up their [electromagnetic warfare] training in a big way.