In the wake of two deadly ship collisions in the Pacific last summer, sailor fatigue was cited as a contributing factor to crucial errors that resulted in the disasters.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, astounded by reports of 100-hour work weeks for some ship crews, demanded immediate change, predicting more tragedies if this trend continued.
The Navy has taken steps to get sailors more sleep, implementing new schedules designed to guarantee more consistent rest and ensure sailors have a circadian routine.
But the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, says sailors also need to get used to working better while sleep deprived or physically worn out.
Davidson oversaw the comprehensive review commissioned by the Navy following the second deadly disaster, the collision of the destroyer USS John S. McCain with a commercial vessel in August. Ten sailors died as a result of the collision.
"One of the things that leaps out is, you've got to be able to handle fatigue. This is about more than just, 'Hey, the routine is too much,' " Davidson said.
"If you saw the investigations directly on what transpired on [destroyer] Fitzgerald and McCain after the collisions, and the leaders that have to cope with fatigue, whether it's the lack of sleep or whether it's the physical exertion of it all, there is some component there that is not robustly tested in the fleet. We really have to take a look at that," he said.
Speaking to Military.com following his talk, Davidson said sailors first of all need to understand fatigue and the effect it has on performance. While the way forward on training to handle fatigue isn't completely clear, he indicated that sailors must come to terms with the fact that they will be asked to fight while exhausted.
"I've got to be able to teach my people that they can't necessarily throw off the pack every day after 16 hours in a combat environment," he said. "They are going to have to figure out how to manage the routine and their people and understand the risk of, who's on watch and, am I going to stand on this watch and you can fight, kind of a protracted action. And oh, by the way, retain sufficient reserve so if you have to do a big damage-control effort, a big resupply of the ship ... that they've got the skills to do that."
Studies have likened the effects of sleep deprivation to being under the influence of alcohol. The longer people go without sleep, studies show, the slower their reaction time and the more impaired their cognitive capabilities.
Davidson said he had been profoundly affected by the story of an Army friend who spent 96 hours without sleep during Operation Desert Storm, and detailed the torturous mental effects of that deficit.
"We've got to find a way to safely and proficiently test our people in higher fatigue conditions along the way," he said. "And we have to teach them the difference between fatigue conditions and those routine conditions as well."