U.S. Navy Awash in Tragic and Embarrassing Collisions at Sea

According to a Navy version of gallows humor, “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.” Well, a corollary to that quip might be, “A series of collisions at sea can sink a fleet admiral’s career.”

The commander of the Navy’s Asia-based 7th Fleet was dismissed recently after a series of warship accidents raised questions about its operations in the Pacific.

A two-sentence statement issued by the Navy said Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, had relieved Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.” The move followed four Navy accidents in the Pacific since late January, including two collisions that left sailors dead and missing.

Seven sailors died in June when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald (whose ironic motto is “Protect Your People”) collided with a container ship off Japan. Early last week, the destroyer USS John S. McCain (whose motto is “Fortune Favors the Brave”) and an oil tanker collided off Singapore, injuring five sailors and leaving 10 others dead or missing.

Subsequent to the tragic and embarrassing Fitzgerald collision, the ship’s Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, Executive Officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, and the ship’s Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin were relieved of duty by the Commander of the 7th Fleet “for loss of trust and confidence in their ability to lead.”

Earlier, there were two lesser-known incidents. In January, the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka base, the home port of the 7th Fleet, and in May another cruiser, the USS Lake Champlain from the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, had a minor collision with a South Korean fishing boat.

As a former shipmate succinctly asked, “What the —- is going on?”

The “loss of trust and confidence in ability to lead” seems to be rather wide-spread in the Navy recently. First, the Commander of the 7th Fleet used that expression in relieving the Captain, XO, and Master Chief Petty Officer of the USS Fitzgerald and then that same phrase was used when he himself was relieved of duty by the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

It will take time for the Navy’s investigations of these accidents to fully run their course. The performance of duties by bridge watch teams (particularly the Officer of the Deck) on the destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain will be under special scrutiny, as will the actions of the ships’ respective Combat Information Centers. Undoubtedly, further discipline (possibly including courts-martial) of those involved in the safe navigation of the ships will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, the Chief of Naval Operations has ordered a “stand down” in fleet operations for a full investigation of any systemic issues that have resulted in these peacetime losses of life and disabling damage to warships of the line.

In short, the Navy is attempting to come to grips with a return to the fundamentals of the fine art of ship handling and basic seamanship. To use a football metaphor, those two skills are the “blocking and tackling” of Naval operations at sea. Without those two fundamentals in place, the mightiest of navies cannot operate safely and effectively.

Hopefully, the Navy Department will be able to “right the ship” in short order and return to its role as “A GLOBAL FORCE FOR GOOD.”

 

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