The Navy recently announced several officers, including both Commanding Officers, will face criminal charges in connection with last year’s collisions involving the U.S.S. John McCain and the U.S.S. Fitzgerald. Both warships were involved in separate collisions with civilian ships which resulted in a combined 17 dead. Additionally, numerous senior officials have been forced into retirement. But, the question remains “How will the Navy stop future accidents?”
The former Commanding Officers (both were relieved following their respective accidents) will each face numerous criminal charges. According to a Navy spokesperson Cmdr. Bryce Benson will face charges including negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel following the July 17 collision that killed seven sailors. Likewise, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez will face similar charges following his vessel’s Aug. 21st collision that killed ten sailors. Several unidentified junior officers also face criminal charges, although a final decision had not yet been made at the time of the announcement.
A separate announcement stated that Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, head of Naval Surface Force Pacific, will retire this week. This retirement, announced following the dual collisions, was a direct result of the poor performance of the forces under his command as was the earlier retirements of Adm. Scott Swift, Pacific Fleet Commander & 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin.
The relief of so many senior officers, even a 3-star Admiral, may be unusual but should come as no surprise given the number of serious incidents in such a short time. Likewise, it is unusual for former commanding officers to face criminal charges, especially homicide, but again it reflects the serious nature of the incidents. But will relieving commanders and even charging others address the problem?
I do not think so unless you think the Cmdrs were personally steering the warships and the Admirals were standing behind them giving course corrects, plotting positions and tracking contacts this is more a case of holding those in charge responsible than correct the actual problem.
Having spent a good deal of time on the bridge of more than one ship I had one thought when each of these accidents occurred “A lot of people were not doing their jobs.” The job of navigating a warship is not a simple task. While civilian ships, even large container ships, may be manned by a few dozen (or less) personnel when it comes to a warship there are that many on duty during a single watch. Officer of the Deck, navigator, helmsman, lookouts, CIC personnel, those plotting contacts, etc. the system in place is redundant for a reason – to avoid situations like those that occurred TWICE in the 7th Fleet.
To truly avoid future incidents, and the needless loss of life they include, the Navy needs to address the underlying reason(s) those on duty were unable or incapable of performing their watch standing duties. Whether the crews were poorly trained, undermanned or overworked, there is more than lead to these multiple accidents than the actions of the commanders and those in charge. I suspect the problem is not limited to the 7th Fleet either, that was just the command unlucky enough to see the problem surface.
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