When the USS Fitzgerald collided with the ACX Crystal roughly forty nautical miles southwest of Tokyo Bay, i was involved with a flurry of emails among retired Navy Surface Warfare Officers like me. There was a lot of information we didn’t know and still don’t, but we all generally agreed the Commanding Officer should be relieved for cause. He is ultimately responsible for his ship. That, of course reached fruition several days ago. Complete information remains either undisclosed or the investigation is not yet complete. Seven sailors were killed in the incident.
Then Monday, the USS John R. McCain collided with the Alnic MC, a 600-foot, Liberian-flagged oil and chemical tanker east of the infamous Straits of Malacca and Singapore. There is one sailor confirmed dead and nine still are officially listed as missing as i write. From what little i know, the McCain may not be as much as fault, but it is way too early with so much more information required to determine fault of either ship.
The ensuing reaction of higher command was as expected. The Fitzgerald’s CO, XO, several other officers and senior enlisted were dumped. A Safety Stand Down was ordered throughout the fleet. Investigations, studies, and all sorts of other reactions are de riguer in such cases. The senior chain of command even dumped the commander of seventh fleet, a three-star who was close to retiring.
And already, folks are positioning to find blame or an excuse to push their projects ahead. Flags are saying it was predicted because there are not enough ships, deployments are too long and taxing, hours make for poor decisions. It all translates to: “See, we told you so. If you gave us the ships and the money, money, money we want, this would never have happened. It wasn’t our fault.” The link to the article i read is at the end of this post.
i am a bit frustrated. i reached out to one of my former commanding officers who replied to my emailed questions. Excerpts from that email are below. i will leave the respondent anonymous because he did not expect his comments to be made public. i have the greatest respect for him, and am pretty sure the best surface commanding officers under whom i served including this one would have responded in much the same way as he did:
The Navy is embarrassed and a big head had to roll to get everyone’s attention…lack of fuel for steaming hours and touchy-feely meetings about social issues under the previous SECNAV sure didn’t help improve seamanship. My guess the Navy problem is a combination of a number of things but the responsibility for the safe navigation rests with the Captain and the watch he has entrusted with the safety of the ship. I believe each of us can remember close calls so I hesitate to point fingers.
i agree with his comments concerning responsibility of the CO and his entrusted watch standers. i also agree the Navy hierarchy felt it necessary to make a statement by firing Seventh Fleet after the incidents of McCain, the Fitzgerald, and the two other ships, the Antietam running aground in Tokyo Bay and the Lake Champlain colliding with a South Korean fishing vessel since the turn of this year.
This is all puzzling to me. i served on ten ships. As my commanding officer noted, i and every Surface Warfare Officer i know who spent time at sea have experienced close calls. i remember about a half-dozen extremely close encounters of the sea kind when i was the officer-of-the-deck. They were close, too close, but there was no collision.
After i was commissioned, the standard deployment to the Western Pacific or the Mediterranean was ten months. Later in my career, the Navy reduced it to six months. That’s hardly enough time to get over there, wherever that is, and get acclimated before turning around. Nor does less time at sea improve safe navigation.
Sailors belong at sea. i suffered from the “mid-cruise” blues (roughly the half-way point in a deployment where sailors realize there is still a long way to go before they get home) on every deployment. When they reduced the deployment time, they reduced time at sea. On numerous deployments, it was not unusual to stand “port and starboard” (six hours on watch and six hours off) for extended periods of time. When difficult operations or exercises were underway, i frequently would be up on watch or at work on station for 24 hours and more. The long periods of unrelenting pressure did not diminish my performance. They made me better the next time.
i am not sure if “ship swaps” are still in vogue. The submarine force has had blue and gold teams for as long as i can remember. They swapped out on deployments with the “off” crew preparing and training for the next one. i am old school and i never liked this plan for surface ships. Our ship was a breathing, living organism we learned to appreciate if not loved. We knew our ships and we knew their eccentricities. We were part of her when we navigated her through dangerous situations.
i am all in favor of an equal opportunity Navy. Women being assigned to ships was a positive from my perspective. i’m even writing a book about my time when the program was in its beginning and i was the XO of the USS Yosemite during an Indian Ocean deployment when she was the first ship with women assigned to spend extended out of port time at sea. It worked extremely well.
i do not care what gender or sexual orientation sailors are. As long as they contribute to the mission. The Navy should not be about making everyone feel good. The military should not be a social engineering experiment. The purpose of ships at sea is to meet the Navy’s mission. Period. The Navy should reflect the cultural mores of the country and should be above the biases and prejudices that cloud judgement. However, spending all sorts of time with training should be time spent in training for the being at sea.
Driving a ship was one of my greatest thrills and one fraught with danger. There is no responsibility greater than that of a commanding officer being ultimately responsible for the safety of his/her ship. There is no more of a sacred trust than when the commanding officer qualifies an officer to stand watch in his stead. Nearly all, if not all collisions at sea can be avoided if a ship takes proper action in a critical moment of time. But it takes constant vigilance, constant awareness of the situation in relation to the Rules of the Road. To attain that vigilance, awareness, and capability to execute in a timely manner requires the team to spend countless hours at sea.
Oh by the way, i had two shore tours during my active duty. They were good tours, but they were two too many for me. i wanted all of my tours to be on ships. i am positive the amount of sea tours made me a better mariner. Surface Warfare Officers are required to have subspecialties and Washington tours. Getting promoted and being attractive for flag is as, if not more important than successful sea tours. Staying at sea, i belatedly found out is not career enhancing. That, i believe is the problem. Surface Warfare Officers and their enlisted counterparts should be spending more time at sea and their shore time should be preparing for that.
But then, i am an old salt, a mariner, a surface warfare officer, and not a politician.