Since January, four warships in the US Navy’s 7th Fleet have been involved in serious accidents. The most recent occurred this week when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore; the USS Fitzgerald experienced a fatal collision in June. In both cases, sleeping sailors (no doubt exhausted from the daily grind of life at sea) awoke suddenly to the sound of tearing metal and the rush of seawater. These incidents have many wondering: what on earth is wrong with the navy?
As a former Surface Warfare Officer who spent hundreds of hours standing watch on the bridge of a warship, I know that many things have to go wrong for collisions to occur at sea. Nearly all of them involve human error by the officers in charge. Whatever else is going on, it appears the navy has a serious leadership problem.
New reports suggest that the John S. McCain suffered a “steering malfunction” prior to its accident. But navy ships are designed with system redundancy, and well-trained watch teams practice and prepare for such emergencies. When I was a young junior officer, we constantly trained for potential loss of steering, man overboard, and engine room fires. We’d cover the bridge windows with old nautical charts to practice navigating in low-visibility. Our senior officers purposely created training opportunities designed to prepare us for anything.
That the commanding officer of the Fitzgerald was in his stateroom at the time of the accident is a huge red flag. All watch standers should be familiar with the captain’s “Standing Orders,” which require him to be notified when other vessels get within close range. Were they afraid to tell the boss they’d let another ship get so near? Did they completely lose basic situational awareness? Both are bad; the investigation will eventually determine the truth.
Meanwhile, the responses by the enlisted crew members in both accidents demonstrate what the navy is doing right. In each instance, berthing compartments flooded in mere minutes – another emergency for which sailors prepare. I will never forget that training simulator, in a dark compartment with cold, high-pressure water spraying in our faces. As the water quickly rose over our boots, above our waists, and to our armpits, we struggled to stay calm while working to contain the flooding and get everyone out safely.
It’s no wonder the sailors who did just that, after waking suddenly upon impact, are being called heroes for saving so many lives. In the case of the Fitzgerald, they have been commended for keeping the entire ship afloat.
Early investigation results specifically highlight the bravery of Gary Leo Rehm, Jr., who was posthumously advanced to Chief Petty Officer based on his actions. Survivors report that he personally evacuated many shipmates from the flooding compartment. Men like Chief Rehm represent what’s “right” with the navy.
Something else the navy gets right is accountability. To date, the three senior leaders on the Fitzgerald have been removed, and several junior officers were relieved of their duties by the U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. Ironically, Vice Adm. Aucoin himself was relieved after the John S. McCain accident. More firings are sure to come.
Holding leadership accountable, however important, feels “too little, too late.” In these recent tragedies, the officers paid with their careers but the enlisted sailors paid with their lives.
The upcoming operational pause – also known as a “safety stand-down” – is an important first step, but I am concerned about restoring trust. The navy today needs the kind of leaders I remember, who demand exceptional performance and ensure they get it by relentlessly training their teams.
Our sailors deserve nothing less. They deserve to hit the rack after a long day at sea with confidence that their ship is in well-trained, capable hands. The only thing jarring them awake should be the too-early call of “Reveille.”