The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain after a collision, in Singapore waters on August 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood
The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain after a collision, in Singapore waters on August 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

The collision of the USS John S. McCain with a cargo ship near Singapore last week and a similar event involving another 7th Fleet destroyer near Japan two months earlier are more than unfortunate accidents.

Rather, they highlight fundamental problems facing today’s US Navy.

Investigators will figure out what happened. Informed commentators are citing everything from electronic spoofing to human errors caused by overwork, lack of sleep, inadequate training, and even sailors being afraid to talk to the ship’s captain.

Such incidents nearly always turns out to be some combination of human errors.

That the collisions occurred while both destroyers were conducting basic maneuvers — put simply, driving the ship while trying not to run into other ships — suggests inadequate training and preparation, beside any issues of poor supervision on the ship’s bridge.

Generally, in the military, the more time you spend training, the better you can do something.

However, the US Navy has shrunk from nearly 600 ships to around 275 vessels over the last 30 years, while its worldwide missions have increased.

And in the Asia-Pacific region operations have increased markedly to meet threats posed by an aggressive China seeking to displace the US in the region, and a blustering North Korea that’s able to strike Japan and, before long, the United States.

As a result, naval forces of the US 7th Fleet based in Japan are busier than ever.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson leads the guided-missile destroyers USS Michael Murphy and USS Lake Champlain in the Indian ocean April 14, 2017. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Danny Kelley/Handout via Reuters

They also don’t have that many ships — roughly 50 vessels and submarines of different types to cover an area stretching from Japan to India. And some of these ships are in port at any given time, further stressing those at sea.

A high “operation-tempo” wears down sailors and ships over time. And one instinctively suspects that training is being shortchanged to meet operational requirements of putting ships to sea.

Assigning blame

The USS John S. McCain’s skipper will likely be relieved, and in an unprecedented move, the 7th Fleet Commander has already been removed after four accidents under his watch this year.

This is Navy custom, but it might look further upwards when assigning blame to include the Chief of Naval Operations.

The current dilemma of too many missions, not enough ships and sailors, and not enough time to train properly has been well known for a long time — despite denials and declarations that the US Navy is the world’s strongest.

Stiff-lipped promises by US Navy brass to do more with less invariably means doing less with less and often not very well.

Stiff-lipped promises by US Navy brass to do more with less invariably means doing less with less and often not very well.

While the decline started back in the Clinton era and continued through the Bush years, it was institutionalized during the Obama Administration.

This was typified by Navy Secretary, Ray Mabus. He was seemingly more interested in foisting the Obama Administration’s progressive social experiments on the US Navy than in ensuring the force had the ships, personnel, and money needed to accomplish its mission. Fighting wars was an afterthought, if that.

Mabus’s efforts to introduce expensive “green fuels,” repealing “don’t ask don’t tell,” expunging the word “man” from naval ratings, and naming ships after social activists who had nothing to do with the Navy, were misplaced and distracting.

The USS Fitzgerald guided-missile destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel south of  Tokyo Bay on June 17, 2017. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters

He’d have done better to ensure the Navy was spending enough time on training for basics in navigation, ship handling, collision avoidance, emergency drills, bridge operations — and not surrendering well armed US Navy patrol boats to Iranians.

In this sort of environment, a certain type of officer recognizes what’s rewarded and is glad to play along to get ahead. The Navy seemed to have more than its share of corporate yes-man types who play well with the DC crowd.

Officer types

There were exceptions (and still are). Admiral Robert Willard, the PACOM commander from 2009-2012 saw the Navy’s sole mission as being able to defeat the nation’s enemies.

He was also considered a dangerous lunatic by the Obama Administration and even within parts of the Department of Defence. Admirals Chester Nimitz, Raymond A. Spruance, and William (Bull) Halsey would have disagreed.

Fortunately, there’s still plenty of such types in the ranks, even if they have mostly been laying low. Give them some breathing room and good things will happen.

The investigation into what happened with the USS John McCain will run its course and more likely than not will reveal human errors. Most of these will track back to “inadequate training” and that’s always a function of inadequate leadership.

Training requires time and focus. To have the time and focus, the Navy needs more ships and more sailors. It also needs to prioritize naval skills over social experimentation.

The Trump Administration has its chance to reverse a 30-year decline in US naval capabilities.

It dithered in appointing a new Navy Secretary and rejected a good candidate, Congressman Randy Forbes, owing to political pettiness. It’s been eight months since the inauguration and the grace period is over.

The collisions of the USS Fitzgerald off Japan and USS John S. McCain near Singapore cost the lives of 17 sailors — a grim reminder that the Administration needs to hurry.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

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