Navy Collisions at Sea

Unfortunately, the errors uncovered, while inevitably “correct,” will inevitably be laid at the feet of a ship’s leadership. By tradition, it is always the case that the commanding officer (CO) failed in the execution of his or her responsibility. While that may be a satisfying conclusion, the truth is that these investigations are brittle and thin; they seldom reveal significant larger truths.

These investigations are conducted in something of a vacuum, and consequently, larger connections are seldom sought or considered. First, the mere question of those larger connections often is considered to be beyond the scope of a single investigation. Second, those connections might turn out to be “ugly,” which could take the Navy in directions leading to the most unwanted sort of questions and public curiosity.

The Root Causes

At this point, it is possible the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions were coincidental accidents—i.e., lightning-bolts of disaster simply struck in rapid succession in Seventh Fleet. Having said that, the similarities between the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions are suspicious and naturally beg questions that need to be asked.It is possible something bigger than simple miscalculation on the part of two destroyers’ watch teams may be afoot. There is a growing suspicion among a small circle of current and former COs that chickens may be coming home to roost.

To some extent, one can understand that the Navy may not want to turn over too many stones in these cases because it already is suffering a metaphysical and evidently incurable cancer named “Fat Leonard.” Seven full years into that investigation even more indictments are expected. Further, the Navy’s carefully described strategy of “distributed maritime operations” may be foundering on the rocks of fiscal reality. Understandably, Navy leaders must be asking themselves whether the Navy can endure the unearthing of yet another ugly issue.Still, if one were to consider that the John S. McCain and Fitzgerald (and USS Antietam [CG-54], which ran aground in March, resulting in another CO’s relief) were parts of a larger pattern, it would be understood that the problem could not easily be laid at the foot of a single root cause, like CO incompetence. Seasoned observers understand that, if these disasters are parts of a pattern, then the causes are multiple.

As it turns out, these possible issues should be well known by the Navy’s leadership. In 2010, then-retired Navy Vice Admiral Phil Balisle was asked to take a hard look at the state of the surface community. Admiral Balisle was uniquely qualified for this task. Not only had he succeeded brilliantly in multiple at-sea commands—including in a guided-missile destroyer, a cruiser, and a carrier strike group—but he also possessed expertise in combat management systems, ballistic missile defense, and shipboard engineering. In fact, he served as the Navy’s chief engineer when he assumed command of Naval Seas Systems Command. Not only did Admiral Balisle know what he was looking at, but he also had the independence to speak truthfully and without fear of repercussions. Specifically, he was charged by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughhead to constitute a “Fleet Review Panel to assess surface force readiness across the man, train, equip domain areas, and provide recommended corrective actions.”

The report was an eye-opening dose of the unvarnished truth. The report was as celebrated as it was ultimately ignored. Nevertheless, Admiral Balisle’s conclusions should give a healthy clue as to what might still be troubling the Navy’s ships: training was drastically insufficient; ship maintenance had no constituency and was therefore persistently given the shortest of shrift; and the operational tempo for ships was crushing.

The Training Element

The history of training in the Navy is long and complex. Starting with World War II and continuing at an accelerating rate thereafter, technological advancements have exceeded the ability of commissioning programs to provide officers up to the task of operating upon arrival at their respective commands. The submarine and aviation communities, which since their respective inceptions had been confronted by advanced technologies beyond the scope of accession training, instituted professional courses of instruction to train and qualify their officers. This, however, was not the case for those officers serving in surface ships, who were increasingly challenged by the advent of advancing radar, sonar, gun, missile, and data link systems.

Eventually, it became apparent that additional professional training would be required by surface officers to maximize the operational capabilities of these new systems. In 1961, the Naval Destroyer Officers School, the forefather of the present Surface Warfare Officers School Command, was established. This was followed in 1970 by the first Surface Warfare Division Officer School (SWOSDOC) class. For the next 30 years, this was how division officers were trained for their first tours at sea.

In 2003, SWOSDOC was shuttered, largely for financial reasons, but also in a mistaken attempt to create efficiencies. SWOSDOC was replaced by computer-based training (CBT). Instead of attending SWOS and associated billet specialty programs for upward of 12-14 months of rigorous training prior to reporting on board their first ships, new officers went directly from commissioning sources to their ships with only a packet of computer disks. Now it was incumbent on the ship’s CO to replace a year’s worth of intensive dawn-to-dusk training, in addition to his or her other considerable responsibilities.

Vice Admiral Timothy LaFleur, who as Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet, was the author of this decision described the change as one that would “result in higher professional satisfaction, increase the return on investment during the first division officer tour, and free up more career time downstream.” First-tour division officers would still go to Surface Warfare Officers School Command, but only after six months into their first assignment and then for only four to six weeks (later reduced to three) as a kind of “finishing school.” Mostly CBT saved money, and it was estimated that $15 million would be saved by shutting down SWOSDOC and shifting responsibility to the ships’ COs.   Soon officers who opposed this change were excoriated for not “getting it.” A decision had been made, and it was not to be questioned by the rank and file. Silence and obedience were enforced.

Then, CBT failed and failed badly. Commanding officers simply did not have the capability, capacity, or time to replace basic surface warfare officer training in their respective commands. But the Djini was out of the bottle, and the costs to reestablish SWODOC, both in terms of money and embarrassment, were simply too great to bear. Band-aid solutions were found. Eventually, an element of classroom training was reinstituted with the establishment of a four-week course established to provide “3M, division officer fundamentals, basic watchstanding and leadership” to ensigns en route to their first ships.

This training still was not enough. In 2010, Admiral John Harvey, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, publically condemned the CBT program as a “flat-out failure” during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on fleet readiness. Admiral Harvey went on to say that the Navy had failed by sending unprepared ensigns to ships, placing the burden of their training on commanding officers. Things were bad in the surface force, and it was at this point that Admiral Balisle was invited to examine the problem.

By 2012, the current approach to surface warfare officer training was set in place. The CBT method was terminated and replaced by more traditional Basic and Advanced Division Officer Courses (BDOC and ADOC), which are held in two segments before and after the prospective SWO’s first division officer tour.

This training is still not nearly enough. The results are plain to those commanding officers who have the experience of a more robust training process. For example, there is an almost inexplicable overreliance on electronic aids, including automated radar systems and the automatic identification system (AIS) on the part of these new-school officers. Proven techniques, including the use of maneuvering boards, lookouts, adherence to the “Rules of the Road,” and, most important, watch-standers actually looking out the bridge window, are mysteriously archaic to officers who have become convinced that technology cannot fail them. Commanding officers can no longer serve as safety back-stops. Instead, they must be the “super OODs” in any risky evolution, lest disaster befall their ships.

This shedding of methods that kept mariners safe for years, for the lure of easy technology, is dramatically complicated by the fact that these officers are on a qualification time-clock from the moment they arrive in their first ships. The either qualify quickly or their COs are forced to qualify them. Consequently, much of these officers’ first tours are spent checking what can only be dimly understood blocks, without developing a deeper understanding of what they’re doing, and why.

Then, when next at sea as department heads, these officers spend their time largely standing watch as tactical action officers, learning how to “fight the ship.” After this, they are selected for command. The days of an executive officer tour, which could serve as the last fire-break of judgment prior to an officer attaining command, are over. These officers, who came to ships without the benefit of the deep and challenging training provided to their predecessors, are soon to arrive in their own commands. Collectively, they have spent little time as an officer of the deck. Collectively, they don’t understand concepts such as relative motion. It is entirely possible that few of them have ever conducted a “Med Moor” or moored to a buoy or even executed a Form Foxtrot. In short, these undertrained officers never had the opportunity to become real, serious, expert OODs, absorbing the lessons that will keep his or her ship out of harm’s way when disaster looms.

Whose Fault Is This?

While the commanding officers of ships such as the John S. McCain and Fitzgerald may themselves have had the full benefit of the old system of training—of SWOSDOC—they preside over wardrooms of officers who have no such training. In short, when the crunch came, they were supported by officers who did not possess the wherewithal—sufficient real experience to assess problem situations and act promptly on them to avoid catastrophe—to truly support the COs.

As an aside, there is chatter regarding a steering casualty that may have occurred in John S. McCain just prior to the collision. Whether this is true or not matters little. These ships have several modes of steering—computer-assisted automatic, controlled by computers; computer assisted manual, also controlled by computers. Then there is backup manual, which takes the computer out of the loop and controls steering through old-fashioned synchros. In addition, there are redundant channels in all bridge steering modes. Finally, there are two steering modes where control is taken from the bridge and is held locally in after steering. Both of these modes are also manual, and one actually takes all electronics out of the loop and is hydraulic.

One of the most basic skills that traditionally has been exercised in every ship, during every underway operation, and daily thereafter is the drill known as “loss of steering control.” In that drill, every steering mode is sequentially tested. It takes no more than a minute or two for a well-trained crew to regain steering control, even if it means going all the way to the last possible local mode.

It is also worth mentioning that even if all steering was lost, which is highly unlikely, a trained crew would simply stop engines and turn on signal lights indicating the ship was “not under command.” All other traffic would then steer clear of her.

In short, and barring some unexpected aspect uncovered during the John S. McCain investigation, it is possible that two guided-missile destroyers’ collisions are harbingers. It is possible that we have arrived at a place where our COs are poor and inexperienced mariners, and that this situation was authored by none other than their own, the surface community’s leadership.

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).



Templar’s Oath

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath.”
— Kingdom of Heaven

I wrote a column here at Clash a few weeks ago about why I am disgusted with my generation. I still stand by what I said but I realized that there is a group of people I left out. These are the Conservatives and Christians who don’t know how to become the hard charging political warriors that most of us are. Many of them are afraid. I mean what will people think of them when they say, “No, I don’t agree with gay marriage” or when they say “Look, man abortion is wrong”?

The quote at the top of this article is from a stellar movie and I would encourage all of you to check out Kingdom of Heaven. Ladies, it features Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson, so I shouldn’t have to say much more.

Back on topic. There is a scene in this movie where Orlando Bloom is receiving his knighthood in the Holy Land of Jerusalem during the crusades. The quote is the oath that he must take. I have always enjoyed reading and learning about the brave Crusader Knights of the Catholic Church and the Templar Knights. These guys were the first special forces after all. I liken myself and all other Conservatives who risk reputation and public ridicule everyday to tell the truth to Templars. Yes I said it: vocal unafraid Conservatives are Templars.

Part 1: Be Without Fear

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee.” Be without fear. Do not fear these people who will tell you that your views are backward or antiquated. These are the last arguments of a movement who has run out of ideas. If you believe something, never let it go. There is nothing more pathetic than a warrior who has lost his or her convictions.

Do your research and educate yourself on the issues you feel passionately about and be ready to tango at all times. The Templars we experts with the sword. Our swords are facts and history, they are on our side, but just like a sword, it is useless in unskilled hands. So be brave.  Especially college students. Don’t be afraid to question your professors during discussions. When I was in an intro political science class I had a teacher who was a socialist. He was a great guy and we still talk to this day, but he would fill these young kid’s heads full of garbage about socialism and it’s superiority. He and I would argue every class. I always heard nothing but silence for the first couple of weeks of class. No one would agree with me or speak up. But then about four weeks into class several students began to come up to me and ask me about my opinions and before the end of the class I had ignited an army of Conservatives.

You can do it to. Be a leader not a follower. Point man is always the scariest position but it is only the point man that can lead the platoon.  Finally be upright. What does that mean? Always respect your debating opponents even though sometimes they will not respect you.  If you do these things always remember that when it seems everyone else is looking at you funny and talking about you, God will love you.

Part 2: Speak the Truth, ALWAYS

Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death.” My first writing gig was at a place called the College Conservative. I was friends with the guy who started the site. I met him in the class with the Socialist professor. My first article there was Speaking Truth to Power. I believe it is still there. We must speak truth in order to do battle.

As I said before the facts are on our side. The Templars believed that the truth was worth dying for and in fact many of them did when they spoke out about corruption in the Vatican. Now, luckily, we aren’t even risking our lives.  Doesn’t sound so bad now huh? But you must be ready to lose friends and maybe even a few close friends for what you believe. Being a warrior requires sacrifice. I promise you though, your true friends will respect you for sticking to your beliefs and knowing how to argue for them in a respectful fashion. One of my best friends, Derrick, is totally opposite from me on a lot of issues and we fight continuously but he will tell you he respects me as a fellow thinker and that he counts me as one of his close friends. So speak the truth, ALWAYS.

Part 3: Safe Guard the Helpless

Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong.“ Finally, always look out for one another and those you sense have something to say and are afraid to say it. Encourage them and inspire them with your boldness. A true Templar always protected those who needed protection sometimes even putting themselves in harms way in order to protect them. Don’t be afraid to back a person up in a debate even if that person is being sneered at by an entire group of people. Two committed minds are more powerful than a mob of those simply repeating what they have been told.

So, Conservatives young and old, this is your oath. Are you prepared to follow it? I know I try to each and everyday. I argue with a lot of people especially now that my morality and “backward” way of thinking has become so unpopular. But in the end would you rather have popularity or honor?  I encourage you to be a Templar and fight with me. If we are going to go down then we will go down fighting. I just don’t want to be the one standing around in twenty years saying, “I wonder if I did all that I could while there was still time left.” Do you?

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

(Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name give glory)

About the author, Mark Mayberry: Mark Mayberry lives in Tennessee and is pursuing a Law Degree. He hopes to work in politics and law after graduating. He is also a staff writer at and is the operator of Mark is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys spending time hunting and fishing as well as with his family. You can reach Mark on Facebook and Twitter as well as his website http://www.guerrilla-politics.comView all articles by Mark Mayberry