CAVASSHIPS Podcast [Jul 15, ’22] Episode 57…Can NATO get Grain Moving Out of the Black Sea?


Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello…a weekly podcast looking at naval and maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world. This week…Russia’s war on Ukraine drags on, and its pernicious effects on the world economy – particularly the devastating loss of grain from Ukraine – are growing ever worse. What are the chances ships loaded with Ukrainian grain will get moving again, and what are the risks of an active NATO and American intervention to make that happen? Sal Mercogliano  and John Konrad help us dive deep into these issues.

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This Week’s Naval Round Up:

Just over two years since the devastating fire that ultimately destroyed the USS BONHOMME RICHARD, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on July 15 issued a letter of censure to retired Vice Admiral Rich Brown for his role in the disaster. Brown was the highest-ranking officer to receive a wide range of punishments as the Navy’s Consolidated Disposition Authority issued decisions on 27 individuals with varying degrees of responsibility in the fire. Included among those receiving punishments were the ship’s commanding and executive officers and command master chief, as well as two rear admirals. The Navy, following the release last October of two major investigative reports, is expected to take no more official action related to the disaster.

The House of Representatives on July 14 approved by a more than three-to-one margin its version of the fiscal 2023 Defense Authorization bill, approving an increase of $37 billion over the Pentagon’s request for a total of 839 billion dollars. The House added five ships to the Navy’s request for 8 ships for a total of 13 – one more destroyer, one more frigate, one more fleet oiler, and two ambulance ships. The measure authorizes 64 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the Navy, Marines and Air Force and eight more F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighters for the Navy. Other provisions include the establishment of a new national commission to review the future of the Navy, as well as a requirement that codifies the Navy’s role in peacetime deterrence. The additional ships, aircraft and funding are not final—the Senate is not expected to pass its defense authorization bill until August, and neither the House or Senate have approved their defense spending bills for 2023.

An F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter was blown overboard from the aircraft carrier USS HARRY S TRUMAN July 8 in the Mediterranean Sea. US Naval Forces Europe said the accident happened due to quote unexpected heavy weather that sprung up as TRUMAN was carrying out an underway replenishment with a supply ship alongside. One sailor received minor injuries, the Navy said, but no further details were made available. The TRUMAN has been deployed to the Mediterranean since December.

Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, got underway in earnest July 12 as about three dozen warships ships left Pearl Harbor to take part in the world’s largest naval exercise, held every two years in waters near Hawaii and off southern California. The 2022 RIMPAC features something quite new – the active participation of four unmanned surface vessels operating around Hawaii, along with multiple unmanned aircraft. The exercise is scheduled to continue into early August.

The US destroyer BENFOLD carried out a FONOPs Freedom of Navigation exercise July 13 when it passed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Although the islands are in international waters, China claims they are Chinese territory, and as usual the Chinese protested vigorously and also claimed they chased away the US ship – which was shown in Chinese images taken from a nearby Chinese frigate. And in Australia, media reported July 12 that the Australian frigate PARRAMATTA, on a regional deployment in the western Pacific, has been closely tracked for weeks and sometimes challenged by Chinese ships, aircraft and submarines, particularly in the East China Sea. Australia’s Defence Department has declined to comment on the reports.

Servello Squawk:

Today’s action by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and the response by then-Surface Forces commander VADM Rich Brown are the latest indicators that something is really wrong with the Navy.

The ham-fisted, after the fact attempt to hold someone… anyone…accountable to satisfy calls for greater accountability from lawmakers is sad.

Unlike Admiral Papparro’s actions which focused on accountability for the causal factors of the fire, the SECNAV’s decision to try and pin this on VADM Brown is unhelpful.

In the letter of censure to Brown, SECNAV writes that Brown  “failed to oversee ships’ fire safety readiness in maintenance availabilities, where risk of fire is great. [Vice Admiral Brown] also failed to set a culture permitting Commanding Officers, faced with significant pressure to meet time and schedule milestones while in an availability, to raise concerns or properly weigh safety, including fire safety, against maintenance milestones.”

In the second to last paragraph SECNAV tells Brown “You failed to identify and mitigate against the lack of oversight that contributed to the loss of the ship. Accordingly, you are hereby censured for failing to effectively ensure appropriate levels of training and readiness in units under your command.”

After reading the investigation and related lawyer correspondence we know that VADM Brown was never interviewed by investigators or by Secretary Del Toro, that the command-and-control relationship is inaccurately captured in the investigation and that the so-called findings of fact are mostly opinion as they relate to VADM Brown and the SURFOR staff.

Simply put, the letter of censure sends the wrong message to the Fleet, it doesn’t help prevent a future incident from occurring and it again demonstrates to the public how hosed up the Navy’s system of accountability really is.

That said, my disappointment this afternoon doesn’t stop with the SECNAV. VADM Brown’s statement to USNI News in response to the letter of censure was equally unhelpful and embarrassing to him and the Navy writ large. 

Brown told USNI News “I am extremely disappointed that the Navy, to which I dedicated and devoted 35 years of service, has abandoned me for political expediency,…every officer, commander and leader should now be on notice.”

Complaining about political expediency is not what I would expect from a veteran 3-star who was at the helm of the community’s type command when Bonhomme Richard burned out of control for nearly a week.

Before worrying about the service’s political tendency, it seems to me that every officer commander and leader should take notice of lessons learned from the fire investigation, the general material conditions of today’s ships and perhaps the overall state of our Navy.

Oh by the way political expediency is nothing new…and was something VADM Brown remained silent about as the Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel and the Navy’s lead surface warfare officer.

 As our discussion segment drove home, the maritime environment is challenging and dangerous. The sooner Navy leadership can move beyond political expediency and get their eyes on the ball, the sooner we begin to regain ground on adversaries like Russia and China.

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