Last month the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, a modern, state-of-the-art destroyer, was involved in a collision at sea with a cargo ship. The Fitzgerald suffered tens of millions of dollars worth of damage and seven sailors died. The U.S. Navy, U.S. Coastguard and Japan are currently investigating the incident.
I’m waiting to see what facts those investigations uncover. In the meanwhile, I am left with a sinking feeling that our military command isn’t what it used to be, and whereas naval training used to be focused on drilling discipline and vigilance into our sailors, now it rests almost entirely on a mythological belief in the power of high-tech equipment to perform the duties human beings have always performed before.
All that expensive equipment is signed for by the commanding officer, who is responsible for the care and maintenance of the ship. It’s government property, and the commanding officer is legally responsible for it. That’s why protocols are established, training is required and regular exercises are (or used to be) conducted, to make sure every crew member knows exactly what they are to do, exactly how to do it, and through practice, become proficient at their duties.
In the days of wooden ships, a lookout was stationed in the crow’s nest to keep watch. If he saw another ship he had to scream the information to those on deck. In today’s era of sophisticated, computerized electronics, whoever is “on watch” (not in a crow’s nest but in a communications control room, monitoring multiple screens, dials and other data readout devices) should be trained to read and understand the information being monitored by their hi-tech equipment.
Their job is basically the same as the old-time look out: they see indications of an approaching ship, as picked up by their radar, and they report it to the officer in charge. He doesn’t have to yell. He just calls them up, waking them up if necessary. Yet, obviously, that did not happen.
There are only three possibilities: 1) equipment failure; 2) no one was monitoring the equipment; or 3) there was a failure in communication. All of these scenarios come under the responsibility of command. If the radar or other equipment was not functioning, it was the commanding officer’s responsibility to take some form of remedial action, such as …posting lookouts on deck. If no one was manning the communications, that failure ultimately falls to the captain. Breakdowns in communication come in many forms. It is still the captain’s responsibility to make the chain of command works, and train his crew to deal with human error contingencies.
I do not think there is any excuse for the Fitzgerald’s mid-sea collision. As I said at the top, I’m waiting to see what the investigations reveal. Bottom line, the Navy cannot effectively conduct any mission with this level of ineptitude. Seven lives were needlessly lost. A valuable war ship was almost lost. It never should have happened. Someone was “asleep at the wheel” and that someone should pay the consequences. It troubles me that I have not heard this same level of concern from the Navy or Pentagon.
Frankly, it seems to me our Military has lost its pride, purpose and prestige. Flunkies are in authority, and they care more about forcing gender preference policies and keeping Christian chaplains from praying in the name of Jesus than actually training our sailors for military preparedness. If the crew of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald had been trained with the tough values of the WWII era, this tragedy would never have happened.
I read today (August 23) the Navy announced that the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, was dismissed “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command” due to a string of accidents at sea this year involving serious damage to vessels and the tragic loss of lives. Included in this “string” of accidents was the collision of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald.
Admiral John Richardson, the chief of U.S. Naval operations, was quoted as saying, “I’ve directed a more comprehensive review to ensure we get at the contributing factors… the root causes of these incidents.” The captain of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, Commander Bryce Benson, was relieved of duties and other members of the crew have been punished, indicating that mistakes were made which led to their collision.
The investigations being conducted aim to find the causes of these accidents, including any possible dereliction of duty, lack of training or improper certification. This is exactly the level of concern I expected when I originally wrote the article, and the dismissals of Vice Admiral Aucoin and Commander Benson justify my original assertion that the Fitzgerald’s collision at sea indicated a problem at the command level.
[UPDATE] 9/18/17 I believe the level of concern that originally led me to write this article is being vindicated. According to this article: http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-u-s-navy-officers-fired-amid-rash-of-1505772171-htmlstory.html, ‘The Navy has “a tradition of holding officers accountable’. It appears they are now doing just that.
[UPDATE] 11/1/17 In today’s New York Times, an article by Eric Schmitt entitled, “Navy Collisions That Killed 17 Sailors Were ‘Avoidable,’ Official Inquiry Reports” said, “In the case of the Fitzgerald, the Navy determined in its latest reports that the crew and leadership on board failed to plan for safety, to adhere to sound navigation practices, to carry out basic watch practices, to properly use available navigation tools, and to respond effectively in a crisis.” These kinds of failures are totally unacceptable and should never be considered “par for the course”. Those responsible must be held to account, and steps must be taken to see that they never happen again.
As to comments that I was insulting to sailors, any sailor whose failures to “plan for safety, to adhere to sound navigation practices, to carry out basic watch practices, to properly use available navigation tools, and to respond effectively in a crisis” deserves nothing less than insults. They certainly do not deserve respect or honor for the ineptitude that led to the deaths of their crew mates. The U.S. Navy demands a much higher standard from those who wear the uniform.