Study says Aegis radar systems on the decline

Feb 16, 2009
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Study says Aegis radar systems on the decline

The advanced radar systems aboard cruisers and destroyers are in their worst shape ever, according to an independent probe into Navy readiness, raising questions about the surface fleet's ability to take on its high-profile new mission next year defending Europe from ballistic missiles.

Poor training, impenetrable bureaucracy and cultural resignation have caused a spike in the number of technical problems and a dip in the operational performance of the Aegis system, considered the crown jewel of the U.S. surface force, according to members of a "fleet review panel" tasked with assessing the surface fleet. And if that's the situation with Aegis — which includes warships' iconic, hexagonal SPY-1 radar arrays — the panel wondered what that could mean for other, lower-profile equipment.

"The SPY radar has historically been the best supported system in the surface Navy, and coincidentally supports one of the most critical Navy missions today: ballistic-missile defense. Yet SPY manpower, parts, training and performance are in decline." If that's the case, the report said, "it can be assumed that less important systems could well be in worse material condition."

The panel was convened last September by Adm. John Harvey, head of Fleet Forces Command. The seven-member panel, which was chaired by retired Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle and included two serving admirals, produced a comprehensive indictment of Navy decision-making since the late 1990s: Admirals' preoccupation with saving money, which prompted them to cut crews and "streamline" training and maintenance, led to a force that can't keep ships in fighting shape.

The panel's report was obtained by Navy Times. Navy officials in the Pentagon deferred questions about Aegis problems to Naval Sea Systems Command, which had not responded as of late last week.
The mighty Aegis has fallen

Although sailors and other observers have said before that cuts in crew sizes hurt readiness, Balisle's report is the first to detail so many problems with Aegis, widely considered the world's finest seagoing radar and combat system. It is so powerful and adaptable, in fact, the Obama administration is banking on it to become a permanent BMD shield for Europe next year, taking the place of ground-based sensors and weapons as U.S. warships make standing patrols in the Mediterranean.

But the report said Aegis, like the rest of the fleet, has become a victim of personnel cuts and the Navy's labyrinthine internal organization. Casualty reports are up 41 percent from fiscal 2004, and those requiring technical assistance are up 45 percent. Over the same period, SPY radar performance, as observed by the Board of Inspection and Survey, has steadily worsened for cruisers and destroyers.

The report includes a sample of eight cruisers visited in the past several months by InSurv, whose scores on Aegis readiness form a distinct downward trend. The best performers were Cape St. George and Lake Erie, each of which got the maximum score of 1.0, which earns a rating of "satisfactory"; Cowpens and Chosin, with scores between 0.8 and 1.0, also earned "sat." The worst were Monterey, Chancellorsville, San Jacinto and Normandy, all of which got grades that would have earned them ratings of "degraded" or "unsat."

What's causing it? The panel cited many reasons:

"¢ There aren't enough qualified people in the right jobs: 39 of 58 destroyers have a second class fire controlman in a first class SPY maintenance billet. Seven of 22 cruisers don't even have enough sailors to meet the minimum number of authorized billets.

"¢ Sailors aren't fully trained on maintaining the radars.

"¢ It's too much work navigating the Navy bureaucracy to order replacement parts, and, as such, crews have grown to accept "degradation," Balisle's panel found. For example, ships are not ordering replacement voltage regulators, the report said, which SPY radars need to help manage their prodigious power consumption. Crews aren't ordering them because technicians can't get the money to buy spares, so commanders are knowingly taking a risk in operating their systems without replacements.

"The technicians can't get the money to buy spare parts," the report said. "They haven't been trained to the requirement. They can't go to their supervisor because, in the case of the DDGs, they likely are the supervisor. They can't repair the radar through no fault of their own, but over time, the nonresponsiveness of the Navy system, the acceptance of the SPY degradation by the Navy system and their seniors, officers and chiefs alike, will breed [if not already] a culture that tolerates poor system performance.

"The fact that requests for technical assistance are up Navy-wide suggests there is a diminished self-sufficiency in the surface force. Sailors are losing their sense of ownership of their equipment and are more apt to want others to fix it."

Naval expert A.D. Baker III, a retired Office of Naval Intelligence analyst and longtime editor of "Combat Fleets of the World," called the Balisle findings "utterly damning."

"The Aegis readiness shortfall is just one of a vast number of problems related to pushing people too far and not giving them the training or funding resources to carry out their duties properly," Baker said. He said the report's findings showed the Defense Department's priorities for European BMD had been misplaced.

"This will significantly affect our putative BMD capability. The [Pentagon's] money is going to missile development and procurement, not to maintenance of the detection and tracking system — without which the best missiles in the world won't be of much use."

Balisle's report has few specific recommendations for improving the health of Aegis, although it would likely benefit from the review panel's broader suggestions for adding more sailors to sea and shore assignments. The panel does call for Big Navy to create a "SPY Readiness Program" and to "restore all aspects of SPY performance as a matter of priority, to include manning, training, equipping and maintenance."

The Balisle commission does warn of the dangers of an "it's not my problem" ethos in the surface force, which it said will make the Navy's troubles, from Aegis to corrosion, all the more difficult to fix:

"From the most senior officers to the most junior petty officer, the culture reveals itself in personal attitudes ranging from resignation to frustration to toleration. The downward spiral of the culture is seen throughout the ship, in the longstanding acceptance of poor housekeeping, preservation and corrosion control. Over time, the ignored standard now becomes the norm. Sailors watching their commanding officer, department head, division officer and chief petty officer step over running rust, peeling non-skid or severe structure damage long enough associate this activity as the standard."

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