In the wake of the release of the U.S Navy investigation into collisions between American warships and merchant vessels over the past year, senior leadership within America’s seaward military branch announced a number of changes intended to prevent such tragic mistakes from occurring again in the future.

In June, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a civilian ship, killing 10 sailors and severely damaging the vessel.  Two months later, the USS John S. McCain also collided with a merchant ship, killing seven more.  Three separate investigations into these incidents revealed a series of failures, including a lack of training and technical competence, were responsible for each collision.  The senior leadership of each vessel has been relieved, as well as the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet at the time (Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin) of these, and two other, incidents.  However, personnel changes alone won’t initiate change, and now it’s up to the Navy’s leaders in the Pacific to root out the problems.

With the investigation results in mind, Navy Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, made it clear that the neither the Fitzgerald nor the McCain were fit for their operational duties, thanks to a combination of “lack of training, hubris, sleep deprivation, failures in navigation and failures in leadership.”

“The guided missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain sailed when they shouldn’t have,” he said, “and that decision falls on the commanders, who are responsible for conducting risk assessments.”

Richardson acknowledged that the operational tempo expected of American’s Navy assets in the Pacific has been extremely high as of late, with looming threats on the horizon in the form of North Korea’s nuclear aspirations and China’s aggressive expansion throughout the South China Sea.  The demands of the security environment dictates the demands on the ships in the area, but it must be up to the commanders to seek a balance between the two.

When you have a gap between those two, that’s risk,” the admiral said. “It’s all part of that … day-to-day assessment. Every commander has to wake up each day at their command level and say, what has changed in my security environment? What is my new risk posture? And how am I going to accommodate or mitigate that risk?”

Because of the high risk environment and ramping up tensions on multiple fronts in the Pacific, the 7th Fleet, which harbors the brunt of America’s Pacific responsibilities, has been stretched thin and overworked.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that tensions in the region will ease in the near future, meaning there will be an increased responsibility on commanders to recognize when their vessels, or their crew, are not operationally sound.

“Recent experience has shown that if we’re not careful, we can become overstretched, overextended. And if we take our eye off the fundamentals, we become vulnerable to mistakes at all levels of command,” the admiral said.

In order to address concerns about those mistakes claiming the lives of more sailors, the Navy has restored a deliberative scheduling process in the 7th Fleet, which is intended to ensure the operational tempo for ships does not prevent them from undergoing appropriate training or maintenance rotations.  They have also announced the formation of a naval service group in the Western Pacific, located in Yokosuka, Japan that will be tasked with keeping an eye on the fleet’s readiness levels and ensuring ships meet the prescribed standards for operations.  A “near-miss program” intended to help commanders rapidly disseminate lessons learned during operations has been stood up, and a comprehensive “ready-for-sea assessment” has already begun on all Japan-based ships in the fleet.

The Navy has also implemented a policy of having their surface ships routinely and actively transmit on their automatic identification system, allowing nearby vessels to be more aware of their presence and location.

I have to say that fundamental to all of this is how we prepare leaders for command,” Richardson said. “We will deeply examine the way that we prepare officers for increasing leadership challenges, culminating in assumption of command with the capability and the confidence to form, train and assess warfighting teams on the bridge, in the combat information center, in engineering and throughout their command.”


Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy