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Why a lack of basic skills in the US Navy has led to deadly accidents

Last week’s release of the investigative reports into the two deadly collisions highlighted the lack of basic skills among the crew of the US Navy (USN) ships as the main cause of the accidents.

Why a lack of basic skills in the US Navy has led to deadly accidents

The 10 sailors who died in the USS John S McCain collision (clockwise from top left): Charles Nathan Findley, Abraham Lopez, Kevin Sayer Bushell, Jacob Daniel Drake, Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr, Corey George Ingram, Dustin Louis Doyon, John Henry Hoagland III, Logan Stephen Palmer and Kenneth Aaron Smith. TODAY file photo

Last week’s release of the investigative reports into two deadly collisions highlighted the lack of basic skills among the crew of the US Navy (USN) ships involved as the main cause of the accidents.

Ten sailors died in August when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with the Alnic - an oil tanker - while approaching Singapore.

This followed the crash in June between the USS Fitzgerald, another destroyer, and container ship ACX Crystal near Japan, which killed seven sailors.

The report concluded that the “crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation”.

The USN’s top admiral has since ordered its ship crews around the world to get “more training in basic safety, seamanship and navigation”. But questions remain over how and why sailors of the best navy in the world have been found wanting.  Measures recommended by the comprehensive review report, such as increased training and periodic assessments of basic skills, are important steps to address the problem.

In standing watch on a ship underway, three fundamentals are arguably the most important: seamanship, situational awareness, and knowledge of the ship itself.

Seamanship includes generic navigation and ship handling skills, including knowing the all-important International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), also called the nautical “rules of the road”.

These are essentially traffic rules for the sea. Having good seamanship is almost akin to being good in a sport – using the skills effectively, and knowing the rules and applying them almost instinctively.

Situational awareness is knowing what is happening around you all the time. Onboard a ship, this would not just include knowing the traffic situation in which the ship finds itself in, but also what is happening within the ship.

When keeping watch, this also means being aware of what your fellow watchkeepers are doing, how they are doing it, and what they intend to do.

Communication between the watch team is therefore key to good situational awareness.

Knowing the ship is understanding its technical systems, such as radar, engines, control systems, or rudder, and how they relate to one another, as well as the operational procedures in place.

Having good knowledge of the ship  allows a good watchkeeper to even discern variations and differences in engine vibrations, for instance.

In both collisions, these three basic skills were demonstrably deficient.

On the Fitzgerald, technical equipment such as the radar or the Automated Identification System (AIS) was not properly utilised, to the extent that a culture had developed in which personnel had “accepted difficulties in operating radar equipment due to material faults as routine rather than pursuing solutions to fix them”.

The watchkeeping officer in charge initially mistook Crystal for another ship, and failed to recognise that the ships were at risk of collision until it was too late. “Information and concerns” were not communicated across the watch team “as the situation developed”.

Seamanship was even poorer from the start, with Fitzgerald’s “approved navigation track” neither accounting for nor following the appropriate routes in the area.

Subsequently, the ship was not at a safe speed when transiting, and even the lookouts on duty only “looked out” to Fitzgerald’s left side, when a give-way vessel in a crossing situation demanded a look out to be kept on its right side, especially when there is a risk of collision.

Regarding the McCain, the direct cause of the accident was a lack of knowledge in how steering and speed control was shifted and transferred between various control stations.

This was exacerbated by having three watchkeepers “with control over steering” being inadequately trained for their roles since they had been “temporarily assigned” from the USS Antietam (a Ticonderoga-class cruiser) to the McCain (an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer), “with significant differences between the steering control systems” of these types of ships.

Ironically, these watchkeepers were attached to the McCain to provide them with “underway time for qualifications” whilst Antietam was “undergoing repairs” (this was the USN ship that ran aground in Tokyo Bay in January), although “no requalification events” were even conducted for two of them.

Once there was confusion over speed and steering control, there was a loss of situational awareness across the entire watch team.

In terms of seamanship, the McCain was ill-prepared to transit the Singapore Straits, one of the busiest sea routes in the world, with an unsuitable watch complement. Inadequately trained and inexperienced watchkeepers surely had no business being on watch in the Straits without being properly directed by qualified, experienced, and alert supervisors.

Some had earlier speculated that an over-reliance on technology had led to a degradation of basic skills among USN crew. But according to the comprehensive review report, the deficiency in fundamental skills is the result of a navy that is getting more stretched.

The report emphasised that due to “increased demand and delays in maintenance execution” in the Western Pacific for Japan-based ships, “training opportunities were reduced”.

In June, US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift had highlighted that the USN’s “ship days” in the South China Sea were projected to increase to 900 this year from an average of about 700 annually, an almost 30 per cent increase.

The US Government Accountability Office had also previously reported that the USN “has increased deployment lengths, shortened training periods, and reduced or deferred maintenance to meet high operational demands, which has resulted in declining ship conditions and a worsening trend in overall readiness”.

Senator John McCain, current chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, said after a closed-door briefing of the collisions to the Committee: “We’re putting those men and women in harm’s way to be wounded or killed because we refuse to give them the sufficient training and equipment and readiness”.

His comments were especially poignant as the McCain was named after his father and grandfather.

When all is said and done, for all the burning questions resulting from the spate of incidents plaguing the USN, including whether the heavy traffic was a vital factor, there was only one answer that mattered: human error due to decaying basics.

It was the lack of these three basic seafaring skills that made the collision reports particularly damning.

Chang Jun Yan, an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Relations (RSIS) and PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, is a former officer in the Republic of Singapore Navy.

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