Post-Collision Review Raises Questions For Navy Leaders
"GAO [found] that the high pace of operations the Navy uses for overseas-homeported ships limits dedicated training and maintenance periods, which has resulted in difficulty keeping crews fully trained and ships maintained." - GAO, Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports, May 2015
"We assess the Navy is well aware of the risk associated with overseas home porting. The decision to accept these risks was ultimately based on the operational decision to provide increased presence to meet combatant commander requirements." - Department of Defense comments to the GAO recommendations, May 2015
On November 2, in the wake of two minor accidents and two deadly collisions involving Japan-based warships, a U.S. Navy review panel concluded that the vessels' high-tempo operations had eroded readiness, slowly and "insidiously," to the point that slim safety margins became normal. With Chinese submarines and North Korean missiles to monitor, and few warships to do it, training for good seamanship and safe navigation dropped down the list of priorities.
The Navy is implementing a long list of changes in the wake of the accidents. The Japan-based surface force will receive better training, better equipment, reduced workloads and more oversight. The Navy will try to create a culture where commanders can safely say that they are not ready to execute the mission until their units are trained and prepared. And the top officers on the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain have been relieved, as have the commanders of DESRON 15, Task Force 70 and Seventh Fleet.
But the timing of the review raises a hard question. According to the Department of Defense, the Navy was "well aware" of the readiness issues at Seventh Fleet two years ago, and accepted these risks. The Seventh Fleet cruiser USS Antietam went aground in Tokyo Bay in January 2017. The USS Lake Champlaign collided with a South Korean fishing boat in May 2017. But the top-level review did not begin until the USS Fitzgerald collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17, leading to seven fatalities and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
In a news conference Thursday, Adm. Richardson made clear that he owned the Seventh Fleet readiness problem, that he felt responsible for it and that he would lead the effort to fix it, and he compared it to past incidents inside and outside the service where "deviancy becomes normalized." However, beyond noting that the reports on the Antietam and Champlaign accidents were not raised above the local level, he did not directly address the question of why the growing risks at Seventh Fleet were not addressed before the USS Fitzgerald.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.