On a moonlit early morning with calm seas on June 17, the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald was conducting routine operations within sight of land, near Japan’s Izu Peninsula.  At about 0130 the port side of ACX Crystal, a commercial ship, struck the starboard side of the Navy vessel above the waterline.  Beneath the water, the container ship’s bulbous bow punctured a 17-by-13-foot hole in a berthing area and auxiliary machine room spanning the second and third decks.  The official investigation report describes the impact of the collision, which threw some sailors from their bunks.  Within seconds, there were yells of “water on deck” and “get out.”  The berthing area was flooded in less than a minute.  One sailor survived by breathing in a small air pocket and then swimming across toward the starboard egress ladder. The last sailor to escape had to swim around floating lockers and debris toward the only light he could see and was said to be taking his final breath when he was pulled from the water.  Five sailors used a sledgehammer, a kettle bell, and their bodies to break down the door to rescue the injured commanding officer, who was in his cabin at the time of the collision.  Seven sailors died.

After a recent series of ship accidents that resulted in an operational suspension and the relief of the Seventh Fleet commander, the U.S. Navy is confronting a critical inflection point.  Amid North Korean tensions, Russian military operations, and the rapid emergence of China’s blue-water navy, the Navy is under tremendous pressure to retain its global presence and power projection role.

These problems have been a long time coming. As Jerry Hendrix keenly observes, the “fleet’s problems stem from decades of flat acquisition budgets and declining ship numbers.”  As fleet size has shrunk, global demands have increased. Maintenance and especially training have suffered as a result. Well-trained sailors can often compensate for failures caused by inadequate maintenance, keeping ships at sea and performing their missions.  But when the training is insufficient for the missions, we need to identify where we have lapsed and correct our course.

Excuses and denials only bury institutional troubles.  The world’s premier navy needs to examine problems head-on, do a thorough investigation, and determine the most important ways to move forward.  This correction is necessary if the Navy is to emerge on the other side of mishaps and challenges with the world’s most powerful fleet.

Go to the Pain

The Navy has seen three recent ship collisions and a ship grounding, all in the Pacific, since the beginning of the year.  The four incidents occurred on:

  • January 31, when the USS Antietam Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser ran aground while in Tokyo Bay near Yokosuka, home port of the 7th Fleet in Japan.
  • May 9, when another Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, USS Lake Champlain, ran into a South Korean fishing boat 70 miles east of Gangguhang Port.
  • June 17, when the USS Fitzgerald Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer collided with the merchant ship ACX Crystal, drowning seven sailors.
  • August 21, when the USS John S. McCain, another Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, collided with an oil tanker near Singapore, resulting in 10 casualties.

A full investigation is underway to determine the cause of the latest collision. Whatever the fault of commercial shipping in the latter three incidents, the Navy has no control over the problems and shortcomings that will continue to plague global merchant and shipping vessels. When the assessment is completed, the Navy will want to enact a comprehensive set of internal actions to improve training, teamwork (including bridge resource management), seamanship, and safety for its crews.

It is not sufficient to admire the problem.  Instead, the Navy must fully learn from this present crisis of confidence.  Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson argued in response to the latest incident that “this trend demands more forceful action.”  He is leading an effort to re-instill the highest standards across the surface fleet and indeed, the entire naval force.

Richardson’s transformational effort might well seek to invoke a fellow submariner: the late Admiral Hyman Rickover, who built the world’s greatest nuclear submarine force by demanding the impossible — perfection as an aspirational goal of performance.  But Rickover also understood that failure provided the greatest opportunity for improvement.  As he was fond of saying, “Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.”

The Navy’s early responses have been encouraging. Indeed, few institutions hold senior officials as accountable as the Navy.  The relief of Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin, a decorated naval aviator and Harvard graduate, demonstrates the seriousness with which the Navy is moving to address organizational setbacks.  Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift’s decision to remove the head of the Seventh Fleet earned begrudging support for making a tough call, but the action also underscored the Navy’s determination to right the ship.

Equally reassuring is Richardson’s decision to order a suspension of worldwide ship operations so that crews on all 277 ships in the fleet can get back to the basics of professional seamanship and safety.  Broad suspensions of military operations — such as when the Air Force suspended B-1 bomber combat training missions after a spate of crashes — are rare because the American people assume the U.S. armed forces can sustain global security missions around the clock, every day of the year, year in and year out.  They can, but not without recalibrating the system when failures and shortcomings are identified.

The Navy is being taught an important lesson, and it must consider the full range of steps needed to change the culture, improve the professionalism, and prepare for emerging technical challenges that may induce accidents.

Invest in People as Well as Platforms

As the Navy deploys more technologically sophisticated platforms, including more unmanned systems, the training and expertise of the men and women in the service become even more vital.  It is a myth that sophisticated technology removes the importance of the human element in naval operations.  One retired Navy captain captures the incredible if routine challenge of navigating in the inky blackness of night when any speck of light could carry huge significance: “Radars do not do this.  Computers do not do this.  Humans do, and it would be difficult to capture the complexity of making sense of the situation as broken and half bits and pieces of data flood in, each one of which has been made to ‘fit’ in order to develop the picture on a dark night.”

As the Navy is set to grow under the Trump administration’s call for building a 350-ship navy, ensuring that sailors and crews are given the best training, equipment, and technical skills to minimize peacetime hazards of operation is every bit as important as the platforms themselves.  While information about the recent incidents at sea remains limited, what is clear is that the Navy needs to redouble its efforts to make sure every sailor is prepared to handle a crisis, particularly in situations where technical processes malfunction or outside forces — such as commercial vessels — intervene to cause problems.

A particularly difficult technical challenge comes from those who might seek to inflict damage, even in peacetime, through a variety of cyber or electronic means.  GPS spoofing, for instance, could corrupt the data ships are using to navigate busy sea lanes, and such malicious tampering of critical information could result in accidents and deaths not unlike the recent incidents with the Fitzgerald and McCain destroyers. Although there have been no indications that tampering played a role in any of these incidents, the Navy must be aware that technological advances also bring added vulnerabilities that require a highly competent and well-trained force to protect against intrusion. This vulnerability will only grow over time.  More training is one remedy.

The more advanced the technology introduced into the fleet and into the hands of potential adversaries, the greater the demand on the men and women in the Navy.  Not only must they be able to operate more advanced systems, they also must not forget how to operate without them.  The ancient art of celestial navigation is just one of the most obvious ways the Navy has sought to ensure operational integrity regardless of how well technology is working.  When you drive a car these days, it is easy to become reliant on a screen shot provided by a camera, but that doesn’t mean you should not also glance in the rearview mirror or look out the window. The same principle applies to the high-tech U.S. Navy.  The service needs to maintain a high level of technical proficiency while retaining the ability to operate in a potential environment of technical denial.

Training in simulators provides some proficiency in navigation and ship-handling, but there is no substitute for on-the-bridge at-sea maneuvering training that incorporates not only the physical aspects of “ship-driving” but the integration of all the technical enhancements made over the years. Training time at sea has become a precious commodity that gets increasingly compressed as operations increase and sailors’ working hours are stretched.  The average workday of a sailor includes watch-standing (6-12 hours), maintenance (3-5 hours), shipboard operations e.g., launch boat, flight quarters, navigation details, etc. (1-5 hours), achieving required qualifications (2-4 hours), and individualized training, which is often on-station or specific to a job, such as repairing a valve, learning a shipboard system, or studying a repair manual (2-4 hours).  And I have not even mentioned time to eat, sleep, exercise, or clean the ship.  The types of training that are hardest to schedule in an operational environment are integrated, whole-ship training covering maneuvering, fighting, casualty, and damage control evolutions.  High-functioning teams must train as a whole, and the training must be constant, repetitive, and integrated.  The Navy needs more time for this.

Navigation and ship-handling training must produce the world’s most professional mariners: continual testing and certification of commanding officers and watch teams; scenario-based training in challenging environments such as the Strait of Malacca; and tough, qualified, competent instructors willing to fail students or teams who do not meet the Navy’s high standards.  U.S. Navy ships conduct damage control drills frequently both in port and at sea, and as we’ve seen in recent episodes, damage control efforts saved lives and aided in limiting damage to ships.

In renewing the U.S. Navy’s commitment to the highest standards of maritime tradecraft, there is much we can learn from the British. Royal Navy officers are trained and certified by the International Maritime Organization’s Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping.  Certainly, the Navy should include more collision avoidance training, which is common among commercial mariners.  At sea, naval officers tend to focus on weapons system employment and how to effectively “fight” (and defend) the ship, and that is all for the good.  But extra navigational training is also essential when operating combatant ships in some of the world’s most congested sea lanes and contested waters.

Collision avoidance drills should also be held regularly. These should not just cover what-if scenarios. Drills should involve actual maneuvering using simulated shipping or shallow-water scenarios that take into account the integration of sensors and other technology as well as the potential loss of it all, Training in these drills should emphasize looking out the windows and developing muscle memory to always make the right decisions.  We cannot afford the alternative.

A Resource Problem

Even with the highest standards, the Navy must also have sufficient resources to achieve its global obligations.  Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer has set a 60-day window for determining root causes of ship collisions, but he notes that funding constraints flowing from the 2011 Budget Control Act have not helped with personnel training and readiness.

On any given day, the U.S. Navy maintains some 100 ships plying the world’s oceans to defend U.S. interests and protect the open global maritime commons on which America’s security and prosperity hinge.  An important military force posture dimension of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific was intended to step up the U.S. presence in that vital region despite the fact the overall fleet was shrinking, not getting larger.  The thrust of that focus continues, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stressed the importance of the fact that 60 percent of all Navy ships are assigned to the Pacific Command.

These pressures highlight a growing “ship-personnel mismatch,” as detailed in a recent Government Accountability Office report.  The Navy already has trouble filling authorized billets and will have to add thousands more sailors as it seeks to grow the fleet by 30 percent in the coming years.  Recent reductions in crew size have increased workloads, and 108-hour average work weeks discourage sleep and “encourage a poor safety culture.”   Similarly, increases in operational tempo mean more ships are deployed at any given time, resulting in decreased maintenance periods and decreases in the time Navy ships can train their crews — all of which could certainly be tied to performance at sea.


The Navy has the support of the Trump administration to move toward the force it needs — a 355 ship Navy.  What is required now is the toughness to move forward and do what is hard: face its personnel problems, ensure that it has sufficient crew sizes, and demand only the best for its sailors by committing to more robust training that capitalizes on the lessons of past failures.  They are not “lessons learned” if we don’t learn them.  But learning these lessons will cost money. The current budget proposal falls well short of the Navy’s request to support its requirement to “man, train, and equip” the current Navy, let alone a 350+ ship Navy.

The recent operational pause and ongoing 60-day review offer the Navy the chance to develop clear priorities, raise its standards, put more rigor into the training and readiness of its corps of combat-ready sailors, and prepare for the more crowded oceans and technological challenges ahead.

By conducting a thorough investigation, holding officers and sailors accountable, elevating the culture of seamanship and safety, striving for perfection, providing sufficient resources, ensuring that training keeps up with emerging technology, and learning from mistakes, the U.S. Navy can make the essential course corrections and remain the finest fleet in the world.

Commander Daniel G. Straub is the Senior Navy Fellow and Patrick M. Cronin the Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Their views are personal and do not represent those of any part of the U.S. government.

Back to Top