As we stumble further along our post-Cold War path, the United States of America, defender of democracy, conqueror of the Third Reich, bane of Tojo, ruler of the high seas, the Greatest Military Power Ever Seen On Earth, seems to need people who can drive warships. And by drive, I mean so as to not hit things you shouldn’t be hitting. I wonder if the US Navy has taken out an ad on USAJOBS: Wanted, anyone who can steer a ship without killing people. Enquire within.
Hyperbole. Sarcasm. I’m kidding.
Maybe – no, assuredly – it’s a symptom of the mass information age. We hear about two Arleigh Burke class navy destroyers – greyhounds of the sea – getting run over by big lumbering cargo ships and we lose our minds. The US Navy is currently operating a 270-ship fleet. Back when we fielded Reagan’s 600-ship navy, before Facebook and Twitter, warships were probably slamming into each other and everyone else daily, right? We just didn’t hear about it.
Sure, there were incidents. Big ones. Kennedy/Belknap comes to mind, as does Greeneville/Ehime Maru. HMAS Melbourne did a number on a couple of ships including a US Navy destroyer. There were others. But the latest incidents involving cargo ships ramming and seriously damaging the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain in the crowded seaways near Tokyo and Singapore have sounded the alarm – the collision alarm if you will. Both incidents resulted in loss of life – the Fitzgerald almost sunk and would have were it not for the heroic efforts of its crew.
How well can the US Navy operate its ships and why are we even having this conversation? The US 7th Fleet, of which both the Fitzgerald and the McCain are part, seems to be the poster child for bad driving. There was also a recent incident in the 7th where the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground. Less serious, but still troubling. One has to wonder if the entire fleet is at risk.
So, what happened? Let’s take the McCain incident first as it’s, I believe, more indicative of the underlying problem.
Short answer: key watchstanders on the bridge of the McCain didn’t know how to operate the equipment they were manning, resulting in a loss of steering control.
Longer answer: the bridge of a warship – any warship – is where a group of on-duty sailors and officers control the movement and other functions of the ship. Their duties are defined as watchstations and each watchstander has certain specific responsibilities. The Officer of the Deck is the on-duty person in charge of the bridge (the whole ship, actually, but he or she is on the bridge). The captain of the ship may at any time issue orders to the OOD or even ‘assume the deck’, meaning take personal control of the ship.
To perform duties on the bridge (or at any number of watchstations on the ship, but this is about the bridge), a person must either be ‘qualified’ to stand that specific watchstation or be under the direct, close tutelage of a person qualified for that specific watchstation. In other words, be a trainee.
To be qualified means that person has demonstrated an acceptable knowledge of how to operate the equipment associated with the watchstation and is very familiar with normal operating and emergency procedures, which define how to operate the equipment during particular evolutions, including emergencies or even combat conditions.
The incident with the McCain can be traced to mishandling of two watchstations, or more if you include the OOD and even the captain. The captain was on the bridge (but had not assumed the deck) and noticed the helmsman struggling to control both the throttles and steering of the ship, which are normal functions of that watchstation. The helmsman is ‘driving’ the ship, just as you do when you drive a car: your basic actions are to steer and accelerate/brake. Unlike you driving your car, a navy helmsman does not make any decisions on which way to steer or how fast to go – the OOD does that. So, when the captain noticed the helmsman’s problems, he ordered the OOD to ‘split the watch’, which means transfer one of the two functions (throttles, in this case) from the helmsman to a nearby station called the lee helmsman. For clarity, understand that key US Navy warship functions such as steering, throttles and others can be accomplished at several places, including off the bridge (steering can be done back in the engine room by taking manual control of the hydraulic actuators that move the rudders, for example). A warship like the McCain has redundant helm consoles right on the bridge.
Here’s where the incident starts to go bad. The helmsman was poorly trained and did not actually know how to transfer throttle control to the lee helmsman. As it turns out, basically no one on the bridge that mattered knew how to do it properly, including the OOD. The helmsman actually unknowingly transferred BOTH steering and throttles to lee helm. Shortly, thereafter, the helmsman, who thought he still had control of the rudders, announced that he had ‘lost steering control’.
Chaos ensued. In their attempts to regain steering, the OOD and other watchstanders tried transferring helm controls between stations five times and ended up not only not regaining steering control but also splitting the throttle control between stations (the McCain has two propellers that can be controlled independently). So the watchstander who thought he had control of both propellors actually had control of only one. Here, it is key to note that you can actually steer the ship by varying the speed differential between the propellors. If you increase the speed on the starboard prop while backing off the port prop, the ship will turn to port.
And that’s what happened. Mismanagement of the steering control as well as the propellers caused the McCain to veer into the path of the cargo ship they had just passed and ten sailors died.
The navy’s report on the incidents finds specific fault with the McCain’s training regimen. I already mentioned how no one knew how to transfer helm control properly, but there also were two people on the bridge who were not even officially qualified to stand watch. Moreover, three sailors on the bridge were temporary transfers from another ship, sent to the McCain to gain training, ironically, while their ship was being repaired after running aground (the third recent US warship incident). Although qualified on the other ship, two of them had not qualified on the McCain’s watchstations and the control systems between the ships are different.
To say this is unacceptable is not only obvious but way too kind. My touchstone is personal experience on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War. The concept of watchstanders – many watchstanders! – not knowing how to do basic watch functions is unbelievable. It did not happen on the submarine. Once qualified, we knew our equipment and knew the procedures. Sure, mistakes were made but nothing of this magnitude. Not even close.
The navy report on the collisions is scathing. The McCain’s captain and executive officer have already been fired as have people up in the chain of command, including the vice-admiral in charge of the 7th Fleet (in the military, that means they have been reassigned to posts where they’re less likely to kill people). I’m not privy to all the details, of course, and tend not to prejudge, which is why I waited for this report while some other people were blaming Russian hacking.
And the Fitzgerald incident? The report provides some details of what happened there as well. Such as the radar operators didn’t know how to work the damned radar! But the principal cause of the incident seems to be a failure by the OOD to do his job properly. Most egregiously, he failed to notify the captain when the ship came within close range of other ship traffic, as is required by the captain’s standing orders. Standing orders are sort of permanent rules of conduct and procedure imposed by the captain. It is common for captains to require their OODs to notify them when the ship comes within a certain distance of other ships.
If we distill the incidents to root cause, underlying all the shiphandling failures is a lack of training, a lack of competence. Too many people charged with operating navy ships simply aren’t trained well enough to do their jobs without unduly endangering their ships, their shipmates, and other ships that cross their paths. It takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to competently operate a US Navy warship. It’s not really something that you can learn easily.
I’ve never driven a ship and probably would be a hazard of the first order if I had to do it in a crowded seaway. But I have operated a submarine nuclear reactor and stood other watches in a submarine engine room, duties which required a similar military standard of competence to ensure I could perform my part of the ship’s mission while not being a danger to my shipmates and the ship itself. Before I could become qualified, I had to demonstrate an extraordinary amount of knowledge and competence to my superiors, including the captain, who was ultimately responsible for my performance. It wasn’t easy and I can say that I really could not have done it without extensive, focused training.
Training. You just can’t get around it. No matter how brilliant or innately suited a person is for a role in operating a navy warship, that person will be a danger to everyone around them if they’re not trained to a high standard. So why the catastrophic training failures on the McCain, in particular? It’s not like the navy didn’t know there was a training deficiency well before these incidents.
How did they know? They knew because this latest hasn’t been the first report of fleet readiness. Less than a decade ago, Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle (retired) was asked by the Chief of Naval Operations (the navy’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to conduct a comprehensive review of surface fleet readiness in 2009. Adm. Balisle is a former destroyer, cruiser and carrier strike force commander and is considered well qualified in areas of force readiness. In his report (issued in 2010), he identified several weaknesses, some quite serious, that seemed to require remediation and also seem to address issues that were in play with the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents. In other words, these collisions were forecast. Among the most serious were training failures, particularly those involving training of surface warfare division officers. These are the folks who qualify as OODs. You can read the report here:
In 2003, the school that prepared officers for surface fleet sea duty was closed and a new program implemented that relied on self-study and shipboard training. The young officers reported to their first ship with a packet of CDs and were expected to learn their trade that way, along with ‘on-the-job’ training from experienced officers. The trouble is, as Adm. Balisle uncovered, it didn’t work. Not only were the junior officers over-worked with regular duties (a common theme in the navy and a contributor to the collisions, according to the recent report) to the point where they had little time for those CDs, but the already qualified officers similarly had little time to devote to training. The navy’s plan to pass on basic ship-handling training to the fleet commands was a failure, as evidenced by the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents, in particular. And probably the Antietam grounding as well.
The US military, like most large government agencies, is very bureaucratic with a lot of institutional and historical inertia, so it’s hard to change course. It’s hard for the navy to not only take a good look at how they do business (which they have done at least twice recently) but to implement meaningful changes based on that introspection. Change has been done before – the shift during WWII from the primacy of battleships to aircraft carriers being a solid example. The acceptance of nuclear power for submarines another. But perhaps the best example that I have good experience with is the implementation of the Sub Safe program following the loss of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher. After that incident, the navy became acutely aware that standards for quality control, procedural compliance and other aspects relating to safe operation of naval nuclear reactors was sorely lacking. Through the guidance of Admiral Hyman Rickover (more like arm-twisting), the navy quickly transformed its nuclear program into what it became in the 1970’s and still is today: an example how to do difficult things right and still perform the mission. In part, they did that by implementing rigorous training requirements.
Maybe the surface fleet needs their own Adm. Rickover.