A series of mishaps at sea has prompted the U.S. Navy to examine the way it conducts business.
The accidents shared some similar contributing causes such as fundamental watchstanding and seamanship, and each of these incidents were preventable.
The four incidents involved surface combatants in the Seventh Fleet area of responsibility.
• On January 31, 2017, the Yokosuka-based Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Antietam, while anchored in high winds, dragged anchor and ran aground in Tokyo Bay. 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid spilled into Tokyo Bay.
• On May 9, 2017, the San Diego-based Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57) collided with fishing vessel Nam Yang 502 off the Republic of Korea
• On June 17, 2017, Yokosuka –based Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) collided with ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan. Seven Sailors died.
• On August 21, 2017, the Yokosuka-based Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collided with merchant vessel Alnic MC while preparing to enter the Singapore Strait for transit to Sembawang, Singapore. 10 Sailors were killed.
Several investigations were conducted, including one by Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, which is ongoing.
The investigations acknowledge that there may be mitigating circumstances as to the weather (the ground) or the actions of the other ships. But that is not the issue. U.S. Navy combatants have the best sensors and systems in the world, and are highly responsive and maneuverable. The watch teams in combat information center (CIC) and on the bridge should have had the necessary situational awareness of what was happening, and what should happen next. It all comes down to fundamental watchstanding and seamanship.
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson said in his investigation that in the case of both the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain, he came to the same conclusion:
Collisions at sea are rare and the relative performance and fault of the vessels involved is an open admiralty law issue. The Navy is not concerned about the mistakes made by [the other ship]. Instead, the Navy is focused on the performance of its ships and what we could have done differently to avoid these mishaps.
In the Navy, the responsibility of the commanding officer for his or her ship is absolute. Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the commanding officer. That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.
In the case of the USS Fitzgerald, the Navy determined that numerous failures occurred on the part of leadership and watchstanders as follows:
• Failure to plan for safety.
• Failure to adhere to sound navigation practice.
• Failure to execute basic watch standing practices.
• Failure to properly use available navigation tools.
• Failure to respond deliberately and effectively when in extremis.
In the case of USS John S. McCain, the Navy determined the following causes of the collision:
• Loss of situational awareness in response to mistakes in the operation of the JOHN S MCCAIN’s steering and propulsion system, while in the presence of a high density of maritime traffic.
• Failure to follow the International Nautical Rules of the Road, a system of rules to govern the maneuvering of vessels when risk of collision is present.
• Watchstanders operating the JOHN S MCCAIN’s steering and propulsion systems had insufficient proficiency and knowledge of the systems.
• Vessels were passed at distances well within the distance where the commanding officer required to be notified in accordance to the standing orders, and neither the bridge steam or CIC team were determining course or speed on these vessels.
According to October 26, 2017 “A comprehensive review of recent Surface Force incidents,” issued by Commander Fleet Forces Command (CFFC) Adm. Phil Davidson, “In each incident, there were fundamental failures to responsibly plan, prepare and execute ship activities to avoid undue operational risk. These ships failed as a team to use available information to build and sustain situational awareness on the Bridge and prevent hazardous conditions from developing. Moreover, leaders and teams failed as maritime professionals by not adhering to safe navigational practices.”
“In each of the four mishaps there were decisions at headquarters that stemmed from a culturally engrained ‘can do’ attitude, and an unrecognized accumulation of risk that resulted in ships not ready to safely operate at sea,” the report said. “The pressure to meet rising operational demand over time caused commanders, staff and crew to rationalize shortcuts under pressure.”
“Yet, in periods of chaos and extreme conditions, Sailors rushed in to take emergency actions to save the ship, their shipmates, and restore critical systems,” the investigation stated. This does not happen without effective training, proficiency, discipline and toughness.”
In a Sept. 2017 report to Congress, the Government Accountability Officer stated that Fitzgerald and McCain had expired certifications for vital mission areas, and while ships that deploy from the West Coast or Hawaii spend months preparing for deployment, the FDNF ships did not have dedicated training periods built into their operating schedules. The irony is that the Yokosuka-based ships conduct virtually continuous real-world operations when they get underway in Seventh Fleet are of operations.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran told members of Congress that he had maintained a "wrong assumption" that the Yokosuka-based combatants were more proficient and better trained because they were operating all the time.
Richardson testified about what he referred to as the “triple-whammy,” which he said was the “the corrosive confluence of high operational tempos, inadequate budgets and budget uncertainty.”
Training and maintenance is necessary to sustain readiness. Certifications and milestones had lapsed or were bypassed in the name of getting the mission done. There must be a balance. If ships operate too much the training and maintenance will suffer.
This problem is not new. The GAO also reported in 2015 that the Navy was deficient in its training and maintenance for the FDNF ships in Japan.
The Right Way
In a message to the Surface Force, Commander Naval Surface Force (CNSF) Vice Adm. Tom Rowden directed commands, immediate superiors in the chain of command (ISICs) and type commander staffs to “assess manning, training certification and accomplishment, and most of all, proficiency. Chains of command will validate the effectiveness of subordinate units in carrying out this direction, and the type commander staffs will be the ultimate adjudicator of assessment completeness and proficiency.”
“Based upon the need to ensure that all ships conduct bridge watchstanding one way (“the right way”), I will promulgate standard CO standing orders, engineering standing orders, and battle orders that will ensure simplicity, directivity, and commonality.”
While the documents would respect the need to address unit-specific equipment configurations, they will provide common business rules and engineering watchstations.
For example, in addition to the capabilities of search radars to plot tracks and determine closest points of approaches (CPA), the directive states that maneuvering board solutions will be calculated by both bridge and CIC watch teams for all surface contacts bearing an initial CPA of 5,000 yards or less. It also directs the Navy ships to activate the AIS (automatic identification system) in traffic separation schemes or high density traffic areas unless there is a tactical reason to remain stealthy, allowing other vessels with AIS to be aware of the Navy ships presence and its course and speed.
Greater attention must be directed to the individual qualification and proficiency of watchstanders and the underway and special evolution watchbill assignments to ensure what Rowden called the “optimal match of talent to task.”
There is the potential for danger when watchstanders focus on electronic charts and radar track displays instead of being the eyes of the ship, potentially causing more confusion rather than less. One harbor pilot wryly noted that on one Navy ship coming into a port, the bridge windows that hadn’t been cleaned, making it virtually impossible to see outside, but that the watch team had their heads glued to their screens. The reliance on automation and electronics is no replacement for the OOD being the “eyes of the ship.” The Navy has professional qualification standards (PQS), with tests and exams and boards to qualify personnel to be OODs. One retired surface warfare officer said, “I only had two questions, and I answered them myself. ‘Do you understand relative motion? And do I trust you to call me when you aren’t comfortable?’ If I couldn’t say yes to both, you weren’t going to stand an OOD watch on my ship.”
It’s easy to point fingers. Some aviators and submariners have claimed that something like this couldn’t happen in their communities. But, of course, it does happen. That said, there are some differences. Aviators are well paid, all volunteer forces with mandated crew rest. Whatever their additional duties, flying is the only one that trumps all. Submariners are all volunteer, highly paid forces that have unlimited funds to fix material issues and assure propulsion plant and subsafe safety. They have between one and three missions and are rarely forced to compromise.
Surface combatants are the most complex platforms of any community. Multi-mission systems support at least five warfare areas and the same crew does them all. One cannot argue that a modern aircraft carrier isn’t the most complex combatant built, but surface combatants support more missions in a ship half the length of a carrier and with less than a tenth of the personnel. The surface force does not have priority funding, cannot guarantee its personnel are all volunteers for the community and can never say we’re all caught up. The can-do attitude certainly prevails, and nobody dares to say “we can’t” or “we shouldn’t.”
In many accidents, fatigue is a contributing factor. In September, CNSF issued a message to the force directing ships to adopt “circadian rhythm watchbills” that permit crewmembers to get more sleep and better manage fatigue. Ships that have adopted such schedules report better performance. Ships with the five hours on-ten hours off “five and dime” schedule are more taxing on the crew, where they must stand their watches, eat, and sleep, in addition to doing their normal assigned jobs. With a circadian schedule crewmembers can expect to get sleep on a more regular basis at the same time each day. But there is no clear connection between fatigue and these accidents, or that circadian watchbills are the solution. The CNSF directive was promulgated as a result of the accidents, and potentially long overdue, but the results clearly point to lack of enforcement of standards and lack of knowledge of systems and procedures.
Many things have to happen, or not happen, to result in a disaster. When pondering accidents like these, there are probably 359 courses a crew could have taken that would avoid a collision. The investigations point to significant lapses in qualified people making proper decisions. But there is also a heavy burden on those forward forces to provide presence, at the expense, it appears, or training and maintenance. Even if the budget were increased, and forces augmented, there would still be a heavy demand signal for ships on station. Maybe it’s time for the fleet to say “No.”
Excerpted from the January 2018 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News: