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Navy Navigation Errors May Have Killed More Troops Than Afghanistan So Far in 2017

The USS John S. McCain was left with a hole on its port side after a collision with oil tanker earlier this week, one of three such incidents this summer.
Roslan Rahman
AFP/Getty Images
The USS John S. McCain was left with a hole on its port side after a collision with oil tanker earlier this week, one of three such incidents this summer.

A heartsick surface Navy is vowing to find answers after a series of incidents that could make the peacetime Western Pacific deadlier for U.S. troops this year than Afghanistan.

The Navy began, as it often does, with accountability: On Wednesday, it fired the three-star admiral whose command in the Western Pacific suffered at least four big accidents this year, two of which may have killed a combined 17 sailors.

An officer aboard the destroyer USS Stethem also was lost overboard near the Philippines on Aug. 1.

That compares with 11 service members killed in Afghanistan — details are available from the Military Times and icasualties.org. President Trump on Monday authorized a big new deployment of American forces to Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, head of 7th Fleet, was relieved "due to loss of confidence in his ability to command," the service announced. He had been expected to retire soon. Rear Adm. Phil Sawyer, who had already been confirmed as his replacement, will take over immediately.

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift told reporters in Singapore that divers and the Malaysian navy have discovered some remains of 10 missing crew members after the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant tanker on Monday.

The Navy has not officially declared the missing 10 lost, but the White House issued an official statement of condolence on Tuesday evening that alluded to "United States sailor fatalities" following the collision.

It was at least the third such incident this summer, following the collision of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald with a merchant container vessel off Tokyo and the collision of the cruiser USS Lake Champlain with a fishing vessel off the Korean Peninsula.

The Fitzgerald collision killed seven sailors; the Lake Champlain was not seriously affected and continued its deployment.

The latest deaths on the John S. McCain have devastated the surface Navy family as it continued grieving after the losses aboard the Fitzgerald.

"We owe it to sailors that man 7th Fleet and their families to answer the questions that flow from the uncertainty of what happened," said Swift, the head of U.S. Pacific Fleet. "How could it happen — and what can be done to prevent such in the future? We owe it to each and every one of them to pursue answers to these questions."

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered an "operational pause" for ships around the world and a specific review for those posted in the Western Pacific.

But the collisions at sea, as well as an incident early this year in which the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground off Tokyo, are only superficially similar. They took place in different waters, at different times of day, under different conditions.

These aren't situations in which the same type of equipment — a radar, for example, or a propulsion system common to each ship — failed under similar circumstances. The Navy can't simply recall and replace a widget in order to be able to increase safety across the fleet.

The main thing that each case has in common is what makes the Navy's task so difficult: the human element.

Navy mishaps often emerge from judgment calls: A commanding officer, or CO, misjudges which young officers or sailors are ready to stand a crucial watch by themselves, putting people into positions of authority who aren't ready.

A captain becomes overconfident to the point of complacency, inured to risks that he should take more seriously.

Or crew members reach a point where they feel they can't question the orders they're getting or ask for help and instead resign themselves to go along.

"There was a fog on the bridge, a sort of zero-defect mentality that conveyed 'don't say anything or the CO would get upset,' " as one officer on the Antietam later told investigators. "The CO liked to get underway on time, and things would get inflated in the moment."

The military newspaper Stars and Stripes described the investigation into the Antietam's grounding after obtaining it under the Freedom of Information Act. It depicted an angry captain, unqualified watch standers and poor preparation. The commanding officer was fired, and other crew members were reprimanded.

But a military unit needs military discipline — it's difficult to strike a balance between a constructive culture and a dysfunctional one in a ship where men and women must work for months in close quarters while covering huge stretches of the empty Pacific.

All the same, Swift said the Navy will implement a "deliberate reset" for the units based in Japan that will focus on navigation, machinery and "bridge resource management" — in other words, training crew members on watch how to use their eyes and ears, both human and electronic, to help drive their ships.

With the USS John McCain docked in the background at Singapore's Changi naval base, Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift (left) heads to a press conference on Tuesday.
Wong Maye-E / AP
With the USS John McCain docked in the background at Singapore's Changi naval base, Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift (left) heads to a press conference on Tuesday.

This is not the Navy's first broad look into the practices of the surface force. In 2009, having been stung by a series of embarrassing reports that revealed some of its warships were rusting, broken or otherwise unready, the Navy commissioned retired Vice Adm. Philip Balisle to head a "Fleet Review Panel" and study the problem.

Balisle's report, issued the next year, not only confirmed that systems aboard the Navy's high tech warships were breaking down more often and the ships themselves were in less-than-ideal shape but also warned about problems with crews' shipboard culture — acceptance of problems, too little training and too much work.

One problem was years of Navy penny-pinching, in which ships sailed with smaller crews, creating more work for the sailors who remained, which meant less time for hands-on training — and more rust, broken equipment and other such problems.

"It appears the effort to derive efficiencies has overtaken our culture of effectiveness," the report said.

Navy leaders said they were taking those insights to heart — adding sailors back to crews and renewing their focus on training and competence. Richardson's task is to determine whether that hasn't been enough or whether it hasn't actually been filtering all the way down to the fleet and what else he might not know about the workings of today's fleet.

Adm. Philip Davidson, head of the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, will lead the effort that Richardson has set into motion. He is a Naval Academy graduate and career surface warfare officer who's commanded a frigate, a cruiser and an aircraft carrier strike group, in addition to his other assignments.

Richardson said in a video statement that the Navy would look at everything it needs to across the board in order to get a sense of how to be of the best help to crews.

Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., whose father and grandfather were the namesakes for the destroyer damaged in the deadly Singapore collision, said the Navy must get this right.

"Our sailors who risk their lives every day, in combat and in training, deserve no less. I expect full transparency and accountability from the Navy leaders as they conduct the associated investigations and reviews."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
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