Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces, warned Tuesday in one of his last public addresses in his position that the Navy either needs "more ships" or "fewer obligations" to give the service the necessary time to make several key changes.
Rowden addressed growing concerns about maintaining proper equipment and training to effectively conduct operations in a speech at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium near Washington, D.C., Military.com reported.
Following two separate ship collisions in the Pacific in 2017 involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain, which resulted in a combined 17 deaths, Rowden said that time is the key resource needed to implement important changes to stop such accidents.
"[Ship crews in the western Pacific need] time. Time to maintain their gear, time to refresh their basic individual and team skills, and time to unwind," he said. "Time will only come from one of two things, or a combination of them—more ships, and fewer obligations. It is hard to see things any other way."
Rowden has already implemented some measures ordered by the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the Navy, including a policy to allow sailors to get more regular sleep aboard ships and an assessment program that evaluates surface ships before they deploy.
In December, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer raised the idea of taking on fewer missions in order to rebuild readiness and ensure safe operations. He noted that the Navy is only fulfilling 50 percent of the tasks that it receives from the Joint Chiefs and geographic combatant commanders, adding that the service may need to turn down more missions to avoid being overtasked.
Investigations into the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions with commercial vessels found that "errors of watchstanding, communication, and ship control" led to the accidents, Military.com reported.
Rowden said that part of his job is to speak about the mismatch between the service's resources and the missions it is asked to carry out.
"‘Hey, Tom, can you do it?' ‘Yes,'" Rowden said. "But the question that I have to ask myself is … should I do it? Based on where we are on the materiel perspective, on the manning perspective, whatever the case may be. That's kind of at the fundamental basis. We've got to find answers."
The Navy plans to build more ships and has stated its goal of a 355-ship fleet. But such a goal has not yet been planned or funded, and is years away.