The document released by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) on 1 November, entitled “USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain Collision Reports,” is not a simple compilation of the two discrete Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigations that were conducted subsequent to each of these collisions. Those investigations, traditionally replete with raw facts and vital conclusions, have not been seen by the public – and they never may be. Rather, the CNO’s document is a highly filtered, specifically targeted, plain-language communication evidently designed for public consumption. To those accustomed to reading naked JAGMAN investigations, this report seems largely intended to satisfy only the casual civilian observer regarding delivery on the Navy’s repeated promises of “transparency” in these two accidents.
The hope must be that the Navy’s leadership identifies ground truth in all cases and takes the right actions to correct the long-term issues in the surface force.
Here Is What We Know & Don’t Know
► On board the Fitzgerald, the bridge watch members failed to understand the evolving situation; did not operate equipment properly, although it is unclear whether that equipment was broken or simply not understood; failed to adhere to navigational rules; were unsupported by watches charged to back them up; and failed to alert the commanding officer (CO) at any point prior to disaster.
► In the case of the John S. McCain, no one on the bridge seemed to have a grasp of standard, non-casualty, ship control console (SCC) operation.
What is not answered in any detail are the following questions:
► What were all the players thinking, and why were they thinking those things?
► How is it possible that the bridge team members on the Fitzgerald were unable to employ a radar effectively?
► How is it possible on the John S. McCain that no one in the pilothouse seemed to understand the functions associated with the helm and lee helm?
The answers to these questions should provide a compass heading on which the Navy could move forward to sensible solutions.
On 1 November, the Navy announced that Admiral James Caldwell had been appointed as the Consolidated Disposition Authority (CDA) for administrative and disciplinary actions related to the Fitzgerald’s and the John S. McCain’s collisions. This might seem peculiar in view of the fact that everyone from the COs to the destroyer squadron commander to the strike force commander to the fleet commander to Commander, Pacific Fleet, to the head of surface warfare already has been fired or forced figuratively to drink hemlock. What it suggests, however, is that some of these persons will be court-martialed and will receive punishments that will signal to the public that the Navy approaches/views these accidents with utmost seriousness. At the end of the day, the persons ultimately responsible are the commanding officers. This is the burden of command, plain and simple.
While the CDA’s actions may be designed to satiate the public regarding holding persons responsible, they likely will have little to do with getting to the bottom of the problem, unless one believes these accidents were two, unconnected examples of poor leadership existing only in Carrier Task Force 70. If one imagines that the problem is more widespread, the “Comprehensive Review of Surface Fleet Incidents,” released on 2 November, should provide insights. This report, undertaken by Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces, Admiral Phil Davidson, at the direction of the CNO, was intended to answer the how and the why of the collisions. Admiral Davidson’s document says someone in the chain of command set up these ships to fail. How will the CDA respond to this indictment? Will the CDA look beyond the ships’ companies?
The Bigger Issue
In a message to all flag and commanding officers remarking on Admiral Davidson’s report, the CNO seems to limit the scope of the problem by writing:
Ongoing and immediate actions are focused on rapidly assessing our shortfalls and revalidating our navigation and seamanship proficiency. Specifically, we are improving training on navigation and seamanship fundamentals, re-assessing current operational demands and the ships available to meet them, conducting baseline readiness assessments of all Seventh Fleet cruisers and destroyers, consolidating authority, responsibility, and accountability for readiness in the chain-of-command, implementing circadian watch rhythms and baseline assessments of all underway watch bills, and overhauling the force generation model for our Forward Deployed Naval Force (FDNF) Japan.
What is troubling with regard to the CNO’s conclusions is the fact that Admiral Davidson’s charter was to look not only at FDNF but also beyond. Actually, the problem is dramatically bigger than FDNF and more widespread than seamanship and navigation. Moreover, these facts are not in dispute, and they have been known for a long time. The surface warfare community has been shortchanged for almost two decades. It has been ridden hard and put away wet, yes, but there is much more to it than that. The surface community has been shortchanged in training, in maintenance, in money, and in care. Correcting the rot is not simply a matter of improving seamanship and navigation in Seventh Fleet. Rather it will take a concentrated effort, starting at the top, involving the sort of money and interest long denied to the surface ships of the fleet.
Further, what is not discussed in these reports is this question: If ship’s companies, as demonstrated in two fatal accidents, are incompetent to operate the relatively simple equipment provided for safe navigation, what can possibly be expected with regard to the fantastically sophisticated systems necessary to conduct real-world warfare operations? It is troubling that the events that occurred in the USS Nitze (DDG-94) on 9 - 15 October 2016, in which the ship was unable to successfully employ her radar, rendering her blind to incoming threat missiles, have not been adequately discussed openly.
Where to Now?
Even a cursory reading of the report gives hope that someone at the four-star level—someone wearing a SWO pin—gets it. I offer a couple examples. With regard to the surface warfare officer career path, Admiral Davidson recommends the following: “Evaluate the SWO career path from accession to major command including the scope and timing of formal training, sea/shore assignments, and Executive Officer and Commanding Officer sequence and timing. This evaluation also should incorporate a process to ensure an appropriate talent distribution of SWO candidates to the fleet in their first sea duty assignment.” To many this may be interpreted to mean that while we may not be ready to deep-six the XO / CO fleet-up process, we clearly have big issues with generating enough experience for those in command. It is now understood that implementation of the XO / CO fleet-up program caused the gap between an officer’s department head and XO tour to grow to five years—a phenomenally long time to be away from the fleet prior to essentially arriving for command of a ship.
Another example addresses division officer tours. The review states: “Establish a single, longer division officer tour as the standard, with allowances for specific billet requirements. Emphasize that the focus of division officer tours should be building proficiency, especially in seamanship and navigation.” While this may seem bland, it is of enormous significance. Twenty years ago the surface navy decided to spread “talent” between the cruiser-destroyer navy and the amphibious navy. The forcing function was to have a “split” division officer tour—18 months on one ship and 18 on another. While that did spread talent, and provide broadening of officers, it also ensured the experienced junior officers who qualified on the bridge and in the combat direction center would not be there for the ship’s next deployment. This “split” idea was a bad idea then and is an even worse idea now that ships have become increasingly complex.
The concern we all should have is to ensure the Davidson Report does not go the way of the Balisle Report, that is, be an object of interest and energy until larger, Washington-centric events, and particularly budget fights both in the Navy and with Congress, lead ever away from implementing real solutions. We have had generations of failures. Now we must hope that the current and coming generations of leaders do indeed renew and maintain the commitment to excellence necessary to revive the surface warfare community.
For now, what must remain to those interested, whether they be in the Navy family or in the families of the dead, is the hope a fuse has been lit to generate genuine actions.
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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