Navy's deadly accidents stir questions, House panel to probe for answers next week

Key Points
  • There's been four Navy ship accidents in the Pacific this year, including two collisions since June that claimed the lives of 17 sailors.
  • Tough questions are expected to be asked next week when a panel of the House Armed Services Committee meets to probe the Navy problems.
  • The hearing comes as Navy's resources are stretched with more demands globally and as President Trump vows to sharply increase the fleet size.
The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision, in Singapore waters August 21, 2017.
Ahmad Masood | Reuters

The Navy is under pressure due to several deadly accidents involving warships in the western Pacific.

Members of a congressional panel will weigh in next Thursday with a hearing to look at "underlying problems."

The accidents in the Seventh Fleet have shaken the confidence of the Navy and raised questions about basic fleet operations, training, crew stress, maintenance and the ability of the service to handle more ships in the future. The Navy's downsizing in the quarter century since the Cold War ended also is blamed for the current state along with readiness challenges from budget caps from sequestration.

"It's part of a larger systemic issue — that's the bottom line," said Jerry Hendrix, a former Navy strategist and officer. Hendrix, a senior fellow at the centrist think tank Center for a New American Security, said current and former Navy officers "have been increasingly concerned about the overall decline of the American fleet."

Four Navy accidents

Last week, the USS John S. McCain guided-missile destroyer collided with an oil tanker near Singapore, resulting in the loss of 10 sailors. It followed the USS Fitzgerald, another destroyer, colliding with a cargo vessel off Japan in June, an accident claiming seven sailors.

There also were two nonfatal mishaps involving Navy vessels. In May, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Lake Champlain colliding with a South Korean fishing boat off the Korean Peninsula. In January, the USS Antietam, a guided missile cruiser, ran aground near Yokosuka naval base and had to be helped by tug boats.

A subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services is scheduled to hold a hearing on Sept. 7 looking at Navy readiness and what it calls "underlying problems associated with the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain."

The hearing comes as the Navy is stretched with more demands to patrol not only the Asia-Pacific region but to provide security for the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf as well as European-Atlantic areas.

"They're having to do more with less," said Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and Bush administrations and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Since the Cold War, he said, "the fleet size has been decreasing the whole time while commitments have been increasing."

'Poor seamanship'

Regardless, the Pentagon last week removed Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin as commander of the Seventh Fleet just days after the McCain accident.

Earlier this month, the fleet released a statement about the USS Fitzgerald, saying "the collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship." The Navy also disciplined several officers and crew of the Fitzgerald for losing "situational awareness," which left them unable to do their jobs properly and avoid the collision.

In an email statement to CNBC, the Navy said this week it was still investigating the McCain accident.

"We do not know what caused the collision, who is at fault or how this could have happened yet — that's why we have initiated several investigations so that the Navy can learn from and prevent collisions like this from recurring," said Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Navy's Seventh Fleet.

Possibility of hacking

Last week, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a Facebook message that he ordered a temporary halt to operations and a service-wide review into the "root causes" of the two fatal collisions.

Next week's House hearing also may look at whether more technology can help reduce human errors. Experts say technology and new sensors can help up to a point but not substitute for trained crew presence.

At the same time, there were some reports that electronics on the destroyers may have been hacked or jammed, and the admiral indicated in a tweet that the "possibility of cyber intrusion or sabotage" was being looked at in the review but there are "no indications right now" it played role.

"The reports back from the three previous incidents show that there seems to have been a breakdown in the coordination and communication amongst those three previous bridge crews," said Hendrix. "And there seems to be something very specific happening out in the western Pacific that we're not necessarily seeing everywhere else, which tells me that there seems to be a training issue in the way those crews are trained out there."

Training shortcuts

In May, then-Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley testified to a Senate defense panel that "schedules for training and maintenance have been compressed" due to a smaller battle force. Stackley now is assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisitions, the role he had before temporary serving as the acting secretary.

Cropsey, a former naval officer, said he also believes training is a common issue found in the accidents. "It's possible that training is connected to increased maintenance demands, but investigations will look into that."

In May, the Government Accountability Office wrote a report about a 2001 initiative called optimal manning, which was designed "to achieve workload efficiencies and reduce personnel costs."

However, the GAO said "increased maintenance costs offset the reductions in personnel costs," and it pointed out that the Navy blamed the higher maintenance costs on "reduced crews, longer deployments, and other factors."

'Strain' on crews

The Navy has been touting the small size of the littoral combat ship's crew, which is just a third of what the older ships require. Similarly, the new Ford-class aircraft carriers are designed to have reduced crew sizes.

According to Hendrix, "the idea of a minimally manned crew" may look good on paper but "it puts a lot more strain on those crews while they're out there operating. There's not as much back up, redundancy within the system."

As for Navy deployments, experts say they are usually around six months but there's been more cases of deployments going to eight months or even a year, causing more wear and tear on ships and stress on crews. In the case of the McCain, it had recently completed maintenance but pictures taken after the accident showed it had rust streaks down its side.

"When you operate a ship for longer and longer times at sea, it requires more and more time when it gets home," said Cropsey. "That comes at a cost of other things."

Indeed, earlier congressional testimony from senior officers indicated the nation's shipyards are overworked and struggling to get ships through maintenance. Also, it isn't just shipyards: Aircraft maintenance has been a problem.

The Navy's status website indicates that there are now 277 deployable ships, with 47 currently at sea. That's down from just over 500 ships when the Soviet Union collapsed.

And if the Navy is struggling with crew training, maintenance and other issues now with 277 ships, there's a question whether it could handle a 355 or 350-ship Navy that President Donald Trump has talked about.

"The problem is where are the resources going to come from," said Cropsey, who supports reaching the 350-ship Navy objective. He maintains that more ships will actually provide the Navy "with more flexibility" in deployments, maintenance and training.