Why Do U.S. Navy Ships Keep Crashing?

Damage to the portside as the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi Naval Base, Singapore.

(www.MaritimeCyprus.comThe déjà vu collision of the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker near Singapore was the Navy’s fourth serious incident in the western Pacific this year, and mirrored a similar disaster in June that claimed the lives of seven sailors off the coast of Japan.

In January, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the U.S. Seventh Fleet is based. In May, the USS Lake Champlain ran into a South Korean fishing vessel. And just last week, the Navy relieved the commander of the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer that on June 17 was hit by a container ship, with deadly consequences.

Now, with 10 sailors dead or missing following the McCain incident Aug. 21, the question of what, if anything, these accidents have in common has become front-of-mind.

One distinct possibility is a fleet that’s stretched too thin, forced to combine training with deployments over a vast area teeming with U.S. strategic interests, according to two retired Navy officers. In a Facebook video, the chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, said he has directed “a more comprehensive review to ensure that we get at the contributing factors, the root causes of these incidents.”

“This trend demands more forceful action,” said Richardson, who ordered a short “operational pause” for the Navy to assess how the fleet operates. He said there is no indication of foul play, such as hacking or sabotage, but that all possibilities are being considered.

From 1998 to 2015, the Navy shrank by 20 percent, to 271 ships, while the number of vessels deployed overseas remained at about 100 ships, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, wrote in a 2015 article for The National Interest. Clark concluded that each ship has to work 20 percent more to meet demand.

The USS Fitzgerald after a collision with a container ship on June 17.

The current fleet size doesn’t properly support the demand for 85 ships to 105 ships deployed to sea at any given moment—the average for the past 50 years—said retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, who also served as director of naval history and is now a senior director at the Center for a New American Security. “When you’re trying to keep that many out to sea … something’s got to give,” he said. “The bucket that gets taken away from is training. I think the training has begun to break down in the fleet.”

Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy captain who commanded a destroyer similar to the McCain, the USS Bulkeley, said that what “we’re seeing is a fraying Navy, especially over in the western Pacific.” The Cold War’s end led to a Navy-wide diminution of “basic war-fighting skills,” he said. “We won the war and as a result, we took a big deep breath, and now we are are recovering from that breath,” said McGrath, an analyst with defense consultancy FerryBridge Group LLC.

Having these two ships taken out of action has a real tactical impact”

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  1. No judgement should be past on the crews of the two DD's that were involved until all of the facts are in (results may never be made public) after the investigations are complete. What makes me wonder is the bridge watch, especially the OOD had command of one the most responsive propulsion systems in the world and it doesn't appear that either ship used its potential to escape from harms way?

  2. The Navy has never heard of Bridge Resource Management. They don't make use of bridge simulators. I doubt they even have an ARPA on the bridge, much less anyone trained to use it. Everything goes through CIC. Too many links in the chain of information.

  3. Looking at pictures of the damage on the two ships, it is very similar indicating that there is a common factor in both incidents. I believe that the factor that the vessels being conned from the control room and not from the bridge. Data gained from radar can give a vessel's track but not the true aspect. People operating in a control room lack one vital aspect, the "mark one eye ball". This can lead to a false assessment of a situation and to a collision. I cannot believe that anyone on the bridge of these two ships could have got into the positions they got into. Both of the destroyer collisions happened in congested waters, in darkness in the early hours of he morning. Having commanded 200,000 tons plus tankers in both these areas on a number of occasions I am familiar with the problems caused by small craft but not by large container ships.