As an engineer schooled in maritime disasters and someone deeply committed to having the most capable national navy, I have followed the U.S. Navy’s reaction to the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62)/ACX Crystal collision closely, and I am disturbed that the information and resolutions that have flowed from the incident are, at best, flawed.
The list of reports and investigations is extensive, but none answers the central question: How could a U.S. Navy ship manned with 300 men and women be completely unaware of a very large commercial vessel while under way on a clear, calm night?
The Navy has faulted inadequate navigational training, lack of manual plotting boards, poorly functioning equipment, high-tempo deployments, and many other issues—but none of these explains how $1 billion of equipment could not perform a task I could assign to three mid-level Seascouts and that these kids, almost certainly, would be able to complete successfully.
The assignment would be simple: Seascouts, take the conn and run the ship from point A to point B. You may encounter other vessels, and I realize you are not well versed on the Rules of the Road, have no decent radar, and are poorly trained on navigational equipment. Therefore, be extra cautious. Look out of the wheelhouse, mostly ahead, but also to the sides and sometimes astern. If you see anything, keep a close eye on it. If it is coming toward you and you think there is a problem, pull back on those levers—those are throttles—and the boat will stop. If you need to slow to avoid another vessel, do it, and then speed up again after the other boat is gone. Most of all, if you are confused, stop the boat and call me. I won’t be mad, and together we can figure out what to do. And Seascout No. 3, you are in charge tonight. It is your job to ensure everyone is doing their job and protecting the lives of the other 297 people on board, including me. If you do not think you can perform this task, tell me now.
This was the task the night of the Fitzgerald collision. It was a calm, clear night. No radar was required, no Aegis system; all that was needed was three mid-level Seascouts looking out of the wheelhouse.
But the Fitzgerald hit a huge ship that the people in the wheelhouse never saw and that easily could have been avoided. The people in the wheelhouse did not rise to the level of mid-level mariners, and that is where the rubber hits the road.
Mid-level mariners would have understood they had a basic responsibility to keep their shipmates safe. So why were there no mariners in the wheelhouse? I have wondered this before, in the 2013 stranding of the USS Guardian (MCM-5).
The Guardian incident should have been an eye opener to the Navy. The official report focused on all kinds of things that were not really casual, but real mariners would have realized that the people on board were not behaving like mariners. Why did senior personnel not take action at that time?
Why didn’t they take action after the 2012 USS Porter (DDG-78) collision? The bridge recording suggests a bizarrely incompetent wheelhouse. This was another lost opportunity to fix what was clearly very wrong.
Nothing happened because my Navy no longer has mariners at the senior level. Senior leaders do not think like mariners; they think like managers. Nothing wrong with managers, but managers manage. Asking them to run ships is akin to asking them to perform naval architecture.
Mariners are a special breed. They learn by doing. I don’t think the Navy trains mariners any longer. They may train navigators, or damage control officers, or hundreds of other specialties, but that is nowhere near as important as training mariners. A navigator is trained to maneuver a ship between two points. A mariner is trained to deal with a fuzzy future and to keep her shipmates alive while doing it.
If a ship is not ready to sail, a mariner will not allow it to leave, because his shipmates are on board, and a mariner does not abandon his shipmates. That does not mean every piece of equipment on the ship has to work. It only means the vessel is crewed to meet the demands of the voyage.
Today, when a Navy ship is damaged, it does not limp home under jury-rig with its crew. Instead, the Navy hires a commercial contractor to dry transport it home. Limping home under jury-rig is what builds mariners. What can be learned from handing over the keys to a commercial contractor after things go wrong?
Getting mariners back on board ships will require massive cultural change, and because the Navy has pretty much run out of mariners, it will be difficult to create the remedy from within. Maybe the Navy has to import some mariners. Maybe it has to put some young Coast Guard officers or offshore supply boat captains in the wheelhouse. From what I can see, they still know what it means to be mariners. They go out in the cold and the wet and the wild in small boats, and when they do, they learn.
As Winston Churchill probably never said, “Americans will always do the right thing—after exhausting all the alternatives.” It appears to me the Navy has tried all the alternatives; now let’s build some mariners.