This post has been updated to include Article 92 charges against an Ensign in addition to the four senior enlisted sailors.
SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Four senior enlisted sailors and a junior officer are facing charges for their alleged role in releasing government video footage from aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) showing the ramp strike of an F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter last month, USNI News has learned.
Following the investigation into the leak of a cell phone video recording the crash from Vinson’s Pilot’s Landing Aid Television (PLAT), the Navy has charged one senior chief, three chiefs and an ensign with failure to obey a lawful order under Article 92 the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Cmdr. Zach Harrell a spokesperson for Naval Air Forces told USNI News.
Harrell would not identify the sailors when asked by USNI News.
The video from the PLAT – a tool to help pilots make the correct approach for a carrier landing – and a subsequent view of the landing area and angled deck of Vinson appeared on social media in early February. Filmed from a space aboard Vinson, the video shows the ramp strike of the F-35C assigned to the “Argonauts” of VFA-147 Strike Fighter Squadron, the 95 mile-an-hour slide of the fighter down the angled deck of the carrier, its slide into the ocean and the start of damage control on the flight deck.
In the audio, a landing signals officer at the rear of the aircraft carrier can be heard yelling for the pilot several times to “wave off” – the order to abort the landing. Following the crash, radio calls go out to recover from the water the pilot who ejected from the F-35C and to start damage control.
The Navy elected to charge the sailors with the PLAT video, but not the sailors who were behind a photo of the F-35C floating on top of the ocean or a video from the stern of the carrier that showed the ramp strike from below the flight deck. The rationale was that the PLAT video was a government document released without being properly cleared, rather than images or video footage from a personal device, a spokesman told USNI News.
“The sailors being charged under Article 92 are either being charged on a general orders violation theory or as a dereliction – as in they negligently failed to execute a duty not to record and leak onboard footage,” Rob “Butch” Bracknell, a former Marine and military lawyer, told USNI News on Thursday.
“There are two reasons to charge this conduct: Leaking footage of a mishap might reveal platform or performance vulnerabilities to an adversary – maybe not in this case – but they want to deter the conduct in other cases and they want to deter sailors recording onboard systems with personal cell phones and broadcasting them.”
In 2016, Kristian Saucier pleaded guilty to federal charges for taking cellphone photos in 2009 of the reactor spaces of nuclear attack boat USS Alexandria (SSN-757). He was sentenced to a year in prison and later pardoned by former President Donald Trump.
“Saucier’s photos were of classified spaces, but I can see the Navy resetting the scale on taking photos of the insides of Navy platforms generally,” Bracknell said.
The Navy has wrestled with balancing the benefits of having cell phones aboard ships and aircraft for morale with the risk of leaks.
In 2020, former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly stepped down from his position after the leaked audio of a speech he made to the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) surfaced. During the speech, Modly criticized former commander Capt. Brett Crozier over a letter to senior Navy leadership warning about the dangers of a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the carrier leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle.
Policies on personal devices for use on ships and aircraft are periodically under review, USNI News understands.