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).



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