The greatest feat of seamanship I ever witnessed took place 30 years ago. We were at battle stations aboard a U.S. Navy vessel smack dab in the middle of the Persian Gulf. It was dawn on the bridge of the cruiser USS Fox, part of a three-ship U.S. Navy fleet protecting a pair of Kuwaiti tankers, which had been renamed and reflagged as U.S. ships three days earlier. Suddenly, the peaceful morning was shattered by a deep thud as the flotilla steamed 18 miles west of Iran’s Farsi Island. While the Fox didn’t shudder, we spotted a puff of smoke arising from one of the ships the Navy was supposed to be protecting. “‘I’ve hit something!” came the chilling radio call from the SS Bridgeton, 40 times our size and a mile behind us. “I think it’s a mine!”
The neat feat of seamanship obviously wasn’t missing the mine (which the Iranians had planted as a sideshow to the Iran-Iraq war then underway), but the quick move by the three warships to fall in behind the Bridgeton and let it act as a gargantuan minesweeper for the mighty U.S. Navy. The service was plainly embarrassed—it wouldn’t let news photographers aboard its vessels take a short helicopter ride to shoot the embarrassing scene of its three warships cowering in the Bridgeton’s shadow—but I was thankful the supertanker was suddenly protecting us.
That memory surfaces as the Navy grapples with a pair of disasters at sea that has killed 17 sailors in the western Pacific in the last three months. In fact, there have been four such collisions there so far this year, and it’s getting worse.
In January, the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay. In May, a South Korean fishing boat collided with the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain. Neither caused casualties. But seven sailors died in June when the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald was rammed by a container ship off Japan in the middle of the night. And 10 perished when the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain collided before dawn with a merchant vessel while steaming to Singapore. Each of these billion-dollar hulls is crammed with the world’s most sophisticated radars and missiles designed to prevail in combat on the high seas. But they’re not worth much if their crews can’t navigate.
Old salts are baffled by the recent tragedies. “Merchant ships are lit up like Christmas trees,” one perplexed veteran said, commenting on an article exploring the crashes on the U.S. Naval Institute’s website. “It is mind-boggling that one could sneak up on a U.S. Navy warship.”
But over the past 20 years, as the Navy has shrunk from 333 to 277 ships, the number sailing the seas at any one time has stayed pretty constant at about 100. That means each ship, and each sailor aboard, has to work harder.
The deaths were caused by “an insatiable demand and shrunken supply” of U.S. Navy warships, says Mackenzie Eaglen, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute. The military’s “always-say-yes culture” has compounded the problem.
But don’t simply lob more dollars at the Navy, adds Lawrence Korb, a Navy veteran and former top Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress. “The Navy does not have a resource problem,” he says. “It has problems of leadership and management.”
There is no single answer that explains the Navy’s misfortunes. But like a line of rigging worn beyond its limits, the Navy has frayed itself by trying to do things smarter. The unintended consequences of that well-intentioned push, combined with a bit of homegrown high-seas hubris, has led to lines snapping with deadly results.
Following the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions, the Navy’s top admiral removed the commander of his Pacific Fleet, ordered an operational pause to focus on safety, and is asking tough questions. “What is the operational tempo of those units?” Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, asked Aug. 21. “What is our process for developing [the] surface warfare community, you know, ship drivers? Could that be improved?” You bet. In fact, the initial probe into the Fitzgerald crash has singled out poor seamanship and lackadaisical watch-keeping.
But is it the sailors’ fault? Perhaps, but certainly not exclusively. The Navy’s inquiry is focused on the training of Surface Warfare Officers—SWOs—who actually drive the ships. “Current and former senior surface warfare officers are speaking out, saying today’s Navy suffers from a disturbing problem: The SWO community is just not very good at driving ships,” the independent Navy Timesrecently reported. The problem—like so many other things—is trying to do more with less: the constant pressure of wartime missions even as training and the fleet’s size have shrunk.
The key training change happened in 2003, when the Navy swapped its formal six-month SWO training program in Newport, R.I., for what was basically on-the-job training on the high seas. Fourteen years ago, each rookie ship driver began getting a set of 21 CD-ROMs—derisively nicknamed “SWOs in a Box”—to learn the basics of seamanship while in their first deployment afloat. Eliminating the schooling saved an estimated $15 million annually. “The changes in the early 2000’s appear to have been driven by a desire to reduce expenditures on travel and assignment to Newport,” Steve Wills, a retired SWO, wrote for the nonprofit Center for International Maritime Security last year. “There was hope that professionalism could be maintained, but how this was to be achieved in a demanding operational climate aboard ship was not given adequate attention.”
It didn’t work—one admiral told Congress it was a “flat-out failure”—and the Navy has been increasing SWOs’ formal training, although not to the pre-2003 level. Those poorly-trained young officers are now middle-aged and have risen to senior assignments aboard U.S. warships. “Computer-based training is not a substitute for real training,” Navy Lieut. Commander Erin Patterson writes. “The lack of proficient watchstanders will likely be found as one of the root causes of the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions.”
Then there’s the question posed by geography. Why is all this happening in the western Pacific? The four incidents involving the 7th Fleet highlight the stresses these forward-deployed ships, and their crews, confront. The Navy likes such “home-porting” in Japan, instead of the U.S., because it argues that one ship there can do the work of four based in California or Virginia.
The Government Accountability Office looked into this two years ago and found that such overseas-based vessels spent 50% more time underway than those docked in the States. The auditors “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.”
Despite that damning report, the Navy’s second-ranking officer, Admiral William Moran, told the House Armed Services Committee Sept. 7 that he was ignorant of its findings. “I have had made the assumption for many, many years that our forward-deployed forces in Japan were the most proficient, well-trained, most experienced force we have because they were operating all the time,” Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, testified. “It was the wrong assumption.”
And while the Navy says such foreign basing makes its warships more efficient because they don’t spend as much time steaming to world hotspots, that’s not the entire story. “The primary reason for the greater number of deployed underway days provided by overseas-homeported ships results from the Navy’s decision to truncate training and maintenance periods on these ships in order to maximize their operational availability,” the GAO said. Instead, the crews aboard overseas-ported ships “train on the margins,” cramming their schooling into whatever free time they can muster. Under current plans, this is only going to become a growing problem: over the past decade, the number of Navy warships based abroad has grown from 20 to 40.
And there may be some hubris involved. The Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea is pretty straightforward: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”
But despite the Navy’s pledge to do everything possible to keep its sailors alive, it doesn’t always use “all available means” to do so. In fact, Navy vessels routinely seek to hide their identities and locations. “Neither [the Fitzgerald nor McCain] was showing Automatic Identification System (AIS) data at the time of their accident,” retired Royal Australian Navy commodore Sam Bateman asserts. “This was done to keep their identity as American warships secret.”
All but the smallest commercial vessels have to transmit their location and ID to fellow mariners and shore stations. Naval vessels are exempt from this requirement under the principle of sovereign immunity. But that “should not be something that excludes warships from following common-sense navigational safety rules, particularly in congested shipping areas,” Bateman says. “Unfortunately it can lead to an attitude of superiority and exceptionalism: ‘we are warships and we don’t have to follow the rules!’”
The Navy’s preferred option for dealing with inadequate training and too-few ships (it said in December it needs 355, up from the current 277, to fulfill today’s missions) is more money. But that, of course, assumes that every mission the Navy now sails is vital to national security, and that it is sailing all such assignments. But the Navy can never do all that the nation’s war-fighters ask of it. In 2015, in fact, it was able to meet only 44% of their requests.
It’s certainly fair, if questionable, for the Navy to argue that it needs more money to do what it is being told to do. But it would be far more bracing if its admirals would cap what they can do to the money they have to spend, instead of stretching their sailors to death.