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Human errors and lax management caused Navy collisions

A new Navy report blasts bad management, lax standards, poor training, and numerous human errors for the ship collisions that occurred last summer.

The long list of errors by the crews, some as simple as failing to sound the standard warning blasts when it appeared they would approach other ships too closely, suggest that no one in the Navy’s upper ranks is following the Navy’s own operational guidelines. They are improvising wildly, while doing nothing to prepare their crews to act properly.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • Cotour

    The Chinese are loving all of this, maybe they can now move forward their plans.

  • LocalFluff

    And I’ve heard, on the Batchelor Show for example, military experts saying that the world’s by far largest navy is over extended and that under funding was the likely cause. This wasn’t the attitude that won the war.

  • LocalFluff: Government people, including military government people, always blame lack of funding for their incompetence. The American military has so much money it doesn’t know what to do with it all, and so it wastes billions. Meanwhile, they get sloppy over things that don’t really require any additional funds at all, like demanding good management from their upper ranks.

  • Commodude

    Lack of funding isn’t the issue.

    The issue is complete and total lack of accountability in how the appropriated funds are spent, and a major disconnect between the people writing the budgets and the people on the pointy end of things.

    A grunt isn’t going to buy you dinner at a michelin starred restaurant, but lobbyists most certainly will.

  • wodun

    There is a lack of funding when looking at what we ask the Navy to do and how much money they have to do it. There is an enormous problem with ship maintenance right now. Part of that is the demand placed for services but even that comes back to funding.

    The Navy does get a lot of money and could take care of a lot of issues if they were allowed to manage it better through re-prioritization. These wrecks are just poor leadership and training though and the Navy already spends plenty of money on that.

    When looking at whether or not additional funding would help or not, its a case by case analysis.

  • wayne

    The Phil Silvers Show
    -Bilko Orders Hairpins & Chewing Gum (1955)

  • Chris

    I agree that the government is deeply inefficient and needs reform but we are out of time.
    We need to reform this and remove the deep entrenchment that spans from the trained voter to K Street but we are out of time.
    Due to the fall of the Soviets and then “Peace Divident” and then the sequester we have changed the mission of the military.
    As an example… We have taken a military that had 900 mile range air protection envelopes and reduced it to 400 thinking we would have air superiority in the small theater wars against the Jihadist or others. Meanwhile the Chinese have a 1000 NM “carrier killler” that is a strategic threat in the large theater war we have been ignoring.
    The point is that we have ignored that while we needed the small skirmish capability and the in-host country military force to handle the Afghan or Iraq scenario we ignored the build up of China and to a lesser extent Russia in a large theater threat.

    We need BOTH capabilities in the military and because the politicians have ignored this across several administrations for decades – we are out of time.

    We will need to throw money at this problem to barely get out of it.
    Yes we need to reform the system but not if it delays our ability to build AND TRAIN the military we need.

    If we lose a major battle -say a carrier is hit or sunk in conflict with China or Russia successfully closed the Suwalki gap and take the Baltic’s without our ability to adequately respond our role as world leader is up. Allies will question our ability and will to live up to our commitments and look elsewhere. The world will become very different especially for us.

    We are out of time.

  • Jwing

    The deadly point of the spear will never retain its edge as long as its tip is blunted by social engineering experimentation.
    You always lead, defend and conquer with your strongest weapons, not intentionally dulled blades.

  • Commodude

    Chris, the real air envelope for a CBG was neveer 9– miles, more on the order of 200 NM circle of controllable airspace. The “Carrier killer” posited by the Chinese is predicated on the CBG taking no evasive action, it’s no different from anything in the cold war. The sole difference is a press and a populace who fall for Chinese propaganda.

    Just remember, the 1000 nm carrier killer is aiming a ballistic missile at a strike group centered on Aegis cruisers…..which are ABM ships.

  • Chris

    Commodude. – The 900 vs 200 comes from Captain Jerry Hendrix via John Batchelor, so I may misunderstand the statements and their context. I agree we would not just sit there and watch the missle come in. But the longer range, higher speed and either ballistic trajectory or surf skipping mode seems to me would cause us problems – especially in large numbers. I hope the Navy and the other branches have keep very good systems and their capability under wraps so I don’t really know the score. But from just numbers it seems we are continuing to slip.
    That all said, my greater point is that we are out of time and need to spend money now, not hold up spending while we argue on fixing a large entrenched system of inefficient procurement. We do need to fix this but first we need to bring our defense levels back up.

  • Commodude


    Money isn’t going to solve the issues facing the USN, unless you’re a defense contractor who views the problems as you not getting enough money.

    We can continue to toss money into ships with inefficient (or nonexistent) weapons suites and hopeless diamonds politicians will be apoplectic about sending into combat, or we can actually fix the procurement system and fix the leadership issues at the core of both crises. Tossing money at the issues is going to solve nothing.

  • Chris

    Hi Commodude,

    I understand your argument on this. I would normally fully agree. The timing along with the direction of our military spending vs the threat is what bothers me.

    Buying inefficient and even completely wrong systems (super carriers vs, ABM and submarines. -which one is correct? – both?) will not solve the problem. Yes we need to build as correctly and efficiently as we can because in the end it is a logistics game that wins. We are not as constrained as our adversaries in our capability, only our own constraints. We need to turn the spending around and stop the sequester.
    Our mission of projecting force essentially world wide is very expensive and we have not been paying the bills. We have great ability to produce fantastic systems but the threat is rising in multiple theaters. The time to lay down hulls or build new tactical fighters is long (a shame we stopped the YF-22 – maintenance and % availability worried me there however). We can pull existing ships out of “retirement” or extend their service lives and continue to build older air frames. These are somewhat “efficient” stop-gap moves. But all these actions will need money to bring the numbers up. The sequester still keeps this limited.
    The current attitude of the country and in DC is that the military should not get much more money. They have become comfortable with the reduced mil spending and using that elsewhere.
    As I say Commodude, I agree with your premise it’s the timing that bothers me.


  • Garry

    I’m not convinced that funding had much to do with these accidents. As someone who spent some time with competent watch standers on bridges of Navy ships (albeit 30 years ago), the report linked from the story is truly horrifying. The report is clearly written for an audience with no naval background; it even defines things like port and starboard.

    It’s painfully obvious that the crews were woefully untrained, and the blame begins with the Captains.

    In the case of the Fitzgerald, the Officer of the Deck (OOD) and Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) apparently didn’t know they were on a collision course, and I wonder why. The Combat Information Center (CIC) seemed to have a handle on it, but apparently didn’t communicate the danger to the bridge.

    I mistakenly assumed that the bridge was equipped with a repeater of the navigational displays in the CIC; this is like plugging a second monitor into your laptop so that you can view the same display on either your laptop screen or on the second monitor. Perhaps this isn’t the case, perhaps they had the repeater but it was broken, or perhaps they had the repeater but ignored it for whatever reason.

    I wonder what the bridge used to determine the danger of collision; in my day (on older ships) we plotted the bearing and range to each surface contact on a maneuvering board, and simply joined the points plotted at different times to determine the relative course of the other ship, as well as the true course and speed of the other ship and the time and distance of the closest point of approach. After the OOD does this, he confirms with the CIC; I remember one incompetent OOD who always got it wrong, but every time the CIC watch officer would come forward and explain how he had arrived at this solution. I wonder why this apparently wasn’t done in this case.

    Then there’s the violation of the standing order to summon the Captain if the ship came within 3 nautical miles of the the Fitzgerald.

    I wonder if everyone was fatigued, due to shortage of personnel and high op tempo, which was always the case in my day. I remember field operations when I was lucky to sleep more than 2 hours a night on average, so my people tended not to take me seriously when I told them to wake up in case X occurred; they thought I was paying lip service to the rule, and I really wanted them to not wake me up. Sensing this, I was very emphatic that they absolutely would wake me up; I might be groggy or even grumpy when they did, but I would be livid if I found out they hadn’t woken me up. The Captain always sleeps just off the bridge; it seems to me he didn’t make it sufficiently clear that he absolutely had to be woken up if a ship approached with 3 nautical miles.

    Then there’s the failure to sound 5 blasts on the ship’s horn and to contact the other ship via emergency radio once a collisions seemed imminent. The 5 blasts are not just for the other ship; they’re for alerting crew members on one’s own ship, so that they can move inboard and/or brace themselves for collision.

    Good training dictates that every key person be very well versed on actions to take in an emergency; if the OOD had been properly trained, he would not have had to think about sounding 5 blasts; he would have done it automatically.

    The McCain collision is in some ways more disturbing. One sailor was assigned to helm (steering) and lee helm (speed control), and was having trouble doing both. It sounds like the McCain has more sophisticated steering control than I’m familiar with, and I don’t know how it works, but old-time steering can be hard. If waves are moving perpendicular to the ship’s course, the ship will deviate from its course with every wave. An experienced helmsman will know how to to use minimal control to compensate for this, letting it ride to dampen the oscillation, but an inexperienced helmsman (such as myself when I was a snot-nosed midshipman) will overcompensate, making the oscillations worse, along with the rolls experienced by the crew. (The morning after I did a particularly poor job overcompensating on the helm, the first thing I heard when I woke up was “I’d like to get my hands on that incompetent SOB on the helm last night who kept me awake with those horrible rolls!”).

    So the Captain, seeing the the helmsman was having trouble doubling as the lee helmsman, ordered that the lee helm be assumed by a second sailor. Somehow, control of both the helm and the lee helm was transferred to the second sailor, but nobody realized this. So the first sailor, steering the ship but getting no response, reported a steering casualty, and in response the Captain slowed the ship, putting the McCain on a collision course.

    Worse, when steering control was transferred, the helm was put amidships (the neutral position), rather than the right rudder that had been used. As a result, the ship veered to port.

    This was amplified by the lee helmsman failing to slow down both engines at the same time; initially he slowed only the port engine, and the starboard engine continued at its former speed for about 40 seconds, effectively steering the ship to port.

    It sounds to me that the helmsman and lee helmsman were not well-versed in transferring control. Worse, the OOD, the JOOD, and the Captain didn’t even realize they had made errors in transferring control, thus failing in the 6th and most important troop leading step, “Supervise” (step 5 is “issue the order”). You can issue the perfect order, but if you don’t follow up to make sure it’s executed properly, it does no good.

    It sounds like both crews had very serious shortcomings in training. Routine actions like transferring control of the lee helm should be practiced so many times in safe situations that they become second nature. Worst-case scenarios, like imminent collisions, should be rehearsed so many times that the actions such as sounding 5 blasts on the ship’s horn should be second nature. In the artillery, our worst-case scenarios were mass casualties from enemy air or artillery attack, or NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) attacks, and we rehearsed these several times a week while in the field.

    The shortcomings in training have to be solved at the ship level, not at the flag officer level. With imaginative exercises devised by junior officers and petty officers, this can all be accomplished without additional funds, just time. Somehow I think the Navy will make it too complicated and too dependent on expensive equipment such as simulators.

    Navigating a ship is a complicated evolution, but should not be this chaotic.

  • wayne

    Highly illuminating, appreciate the effort.

  • Chris

    Thanks Garry and Commodude

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