This year has not been kind to the U.S. Navy. In January, a guided missile cruiser ran aground in Tokyo Bay. In May, another cruiser collided with a South Korean fishing vessel off the Korean Peninsula, injuring several sailors.
Then, the unthinkable. On June 17, a guided missile destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a container ship off Japan, killing seven sailors. Two months later, on Aug. 21, an oil tanker struck another destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, a little before dawn off the coast of Singapore. The collision flooded machinery, communications equipment and sleeping quarters. Ten sailors died.1
“This is a very, very dire circumstance for our Navy,” says Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the China maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., referring to the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions. “It speaks to the possibility that there is some kind of crisis in the force.”
Vessels patrolling the Western Pacific are crucial to defending against a possible ballistic missile launch from North Korea, but recent testimony before two House subcommittees cited major gaps in training and maintenance on those ships.
The Navy confirmed that assessment in two reports released on Nov. 1. “The collisions were avoidable,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in summarizing the reports, which detailed a litany of crew and navigation errors.
Overall, the Navy is struggling to cope with constant deployments, fewer ships and sleep-deprived crews, defense analysts say. In the Army, some brigades are exhausted after fighting for 16 years in Afghanistan and 14 years in Iraq. In July, in five separate incidents, Air Force F-16 jet fighters crashed, killing three airmen.
Such problems have raised new concerns about U.S. military readiness amid rising tensions with Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, as well as continuing pressure to contain terrorism in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.
Nuclear weapons are also raising alarms. Nuclear war seemed a remote possibility a few years ago, but North Korea’s progress developing nuclear weapons has renewed fears that the U.S. nuclear arsenal needs updating. Moreover, U.S. forces also face the prospect of fighting wars in cyberspace and outer space.
The United States remains far and away the world’s most formidable military power, spending more on defense than the next eight countries combined. However, the many challenges facing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force — including peacekeeping missions and terrorism — have prompted worries about whether the Pentagon has the troops, budget, training and equipment it needs. Defense spending has increased about 70 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States but dropped 16 percent between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2016.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told a House Armed Services Committee hearing last year that he had “grave concerns” about whether his forces were prepared to fight a major power such as China or Russia.
Other military leaders say the high priority given to fighting terrorism has hurt the armed forces’ readiness for a conventional war. “While we are primarily focused on the threat of violent extremism, our adversaries and our potential adversaries have developed … approaches specifically designed to limit our ability to project power,” Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee in June.
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