THE PENTAGON — The unprecedented string of U.S. surface ship incidents that have resulted in the death of at least seven sailors and hundred of millions in damages is prompting the Navy to take a hard look at how they operate their warships in the Western Pacific, Navy officials told USNI News on Monday.
Over a period of seven months, the U.S. Navy has suffered a grounding and three collisions involving warships operating in the Western Pacific. The two latest have resulted in the June 17 death of seven sailors on USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and ten missing sailors on USS John McCain (DDG-56).
Prompted by the Monday collision between McCain and a chemical tanker near Singapore, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson announced a worldwide operational pause and a Fleet Forces led investigation to determine any links between the four incidents and how the Navy does business in Japan.
“This is obviously an extremely serious incident and is the second such incident in a very short period of time, inside of three months, very similar as well, and is the last of a series of incidents in the Pacific fleet in particular, and that gives a great cause for concern that there’s something out there we’re not getting at,” Richardson told reporters on Monday afternoon during an off-camera briefing at the Pentagon.
“[The investigation] will have a lot of different aspects to it. What have the trends been? Who’s monitoring those trends? What is the operational tempo of those units? There are a lot of different factors that go towards painting that full readiness picture which would include maintenance equipment personnel, those sorts of things.“
In the short-term, Richardson left the specifics of the operational pause open ended and up to the discretion of the individual fleet commanders, a Navy official told USNI News.
A former destroyer commander said the pause would probably involve a day or two of training aboard ships, similar to a safety stand down.
“Watch teams that are not on watch are sitting down and going through the rules, regulations and the standing orders and all the things that govern the way that we’re supposed to be doing business,” former guided missile destroyer commander Bryan McGrath told USNI News on Monday.
“If you’re not sitting on station getting ready to track a North Korean missile, if you’re not in trail of a Chinese submarine, if you’re not conducting a FON op, you will essentially lay to and study all day and talk and have seminars and discussions.”
The pause will reinforce fundamentals in the short-term and the longer-term investigation will evaluate the surface system as a whole.
While Fleet Forces commander Adm. Phil Davidson will probe the specifics behind the four incidents looking for any systemic issues, the Navy already knows its ships forward deployed in Japan train less and deploy more than their counterparts based in the U.S.
2017 Western Pacific Incidents
The following are the four incidents Navy officials indicated to USNI News that prompted the CNO mandated Fleet Forces investigation into Western Pacific operations.
USS Antietam (CG-54)
On Jan. 31, FDNF guided-missile cruiser Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan damaging the ship’s propellers and dumping 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid into Tokyo Bay. The ship’s commander, Capt. Joseph Carrigan was removed from command in March.
USS Lake Champlain (CG-57)
On May 9, Lake Champlain collided with a 65-foot South Korean fishing boat in international waters off the Korean peninsula. The cruiser was part of the San Diego-based Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group that was deployed off the coast of Korea at the time. Neither the fishing boat nor Lake Champlain was significantly damaged.
USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62)
On June 19, the FDNF destroyer Fitzgerald collided with the Philippine-flagged container ship ACX Crsytal about 50 miles off the coast of Japan. The resulting impact of the merchant ship’s bulbous bow punched massive hole in the side of the ship that allowed hundreds of tons of water to pour in and killed seven sailors. Fitzgerald’s command triad was removed from their positions and several sailors on watch were given non-judicial punishment. Several investigations are ongoing.
USS John McCain (DDG-56)
On Aug. 21, a chemical tanker collided with McCain near the Straits of Malacca causing significant flooding in the ship. Five crewmembers were injured and 10 are still missing.
“The Navy’s high pace of operations for its overseas-homeported ships impacts crew training and the material condition of these ships—overseas-homeported ships have had lower material condition since 2012 and experienced a worsening trend in overall ship readiness when compared to U.S.- homeported ships,” read a 2015 Government Accountability Office report on the Navy’s forward deployed forces in Europe and the Western Pacific.
“To meet the increasing demands of combatant commanders for forward presence in recent years, the Navy has extended deployments; increased operational tempos; and shortened, eliminated, or deferred training and maintenance. The Navy has also assigned more surface combatants and amphibious warfare ships to overseas homeports.”
Naval analyst Bryan Clark told USNI News on Monday that as the total number of the ships operating in the Western Pacific over the last decade has gone down, the operational tempo has remained the same or increased in certain areas.
“I would offer that in the surface community – and we’ve been talking for a long time — that the surface community has been overused,” Clark, with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said.
“The question the Navy has to wrestle with is we ask these ships to do more deployment time and therefore they have less time for training and preparation than they have in the past. The fleet training time has been reduced 20 to 25 percent over the last decade and yet we’re deploying the same number of ships overseas at any given day. If these ships are working 25 percent harder, where did that time come from?”
As to the volume of incidents and collisions, “nothing comes close to this,” McGrath said.
“I do believe if you back along the last 30 years of incidents and you chart them on a time versus incident [chart] you’ll find that they cluster and I can’t explain that. I’m not prepared to say that these are not coincidental but I think you have to rule that out.”
The Navy’s look into operations around the forward force in Japan is similar to a holistic look the submarine community took at its operations and training prompted by a spate of grounding and collisions about 15 years ago, Clark told USNI News.
“In the submarine force we had a series of incidents with USS Hartford and USS Jacksonville – it wasn’t quite as close together – but we had a series of submarine related collisions and groundings over a three-year period,” Clark said.
“There was a similar investigation and soul-searching to figure out what’s going on. A lot of it came down to some systemic problems where there was a realization that we were not providing adequate time for training in-between deployments. Ships were being short-cycled a little bit when they were doing local operations.”
Still, only hours into the Fleet Forces investigation, Clark said that at least some of the problems Davidson is likely to document have been known issues in the forward deployed surface forces for years.
“Obviously there are problems with how the surface Navy may be evaluating or training its guys, but there is a systemic problem overall that the surface Navy is getting worked a lot harder than it’s been designed to do,” Clark said.
“Their guys just aren’t getting the time to train.”
Staff writer Ben Werner contributed to this report.