WATCH: Navy chief says budget cuts strain force amid ship collisions

Navy leaders faced Senate questions over several incidents at sea this summer, including two involving Navy ships in the Pacific.

WASHINGTON — Frequent extended deployments, delayed maintenance, gaps in training and nearly a decade of budget constraints and uncertainly have strained the U.S. Navy, eroding readiness in a Pacific fleet that is responsible for monitoring Chinese aggression and protecting America against North Korea’s nuclear threat, Navy leaders and members of Congress said Tuesday.

The Navy’s top officer, however, said he can’t yet draw a direct link between those problems and a series of ship collisions and accidents this year that resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors. Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said that Navy commanders are ultimately responsible for insuring their forces are combat ready and operating safely and effectively.

The Senate Armed Services hearing broadly condemned the deadly accidents as preventable, in a crowded room that included family members of a number of the sailors killed in two of the collisions.

“It is simply unacceptable for U.S. Navy ships to run aground or collide with other ships — and to have four such incidents in the span of seven months is truly alarming,” said Sen. John McCain, chairman of the committee.

He added that, with three of the ships involved in the collisions now out of service for months, “there are serious questions about our maritime readiness to fight in response to North Korean, Chinese, and Russian aggression.

Members of the Senate Armed Services committee were quick to pin some responsibility for the accidents on Congress, which has relied on stopgap spending measures for the past eight years, forcing the services to shift money from modernization and training accounts in order to fund current missions.

They said they believe that reductions in training time have contributed to the accidents.

Congress has to provide adequate funding to take care of service members, said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.

The high tempo in ship operations in the Pacific has forced Navy crews to squeeze in training where possible, and led to some sailors working 100-hour weeks, leaving them little time to rest, officials said.

Richardson told the panel that the Navy has taken a series of steps to review safety standards, ship certifications and readiness of the force. The increased scrutiny includes ensuring that sailors are well qualified to stand watch and that commanders address “fatigue concerns” and make sure their forces get enough sleep.

The USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker collided in Southeast Asia last month, leaving 10 U.S. sailors dead and five injured. And seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided in waters off Japan.

Already the Navy has fired six senior officers, including the commander of America’s Japan-based 7th Fleet, citing a loss of confidence in their ability to command.

WATCH: Do repeated Navy collisions suggest a systemic problem?