We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us — Will the Navy Learn From Tragic Collisions?

Two high tech guided missile destroyers charged with protecting the fleet from incoming missiles somehow failed to avoid collision with two slow-speed commercial vessels. Tragically, seventeen sailors died in the collisions. Some immediately blamed cyber-hacking, although a Navy investigation has turned up zero evidence to support the claim.  Now, the focus is on more prosaic and avoidable causes — inadequate training, sleep deprivation, and poor ship management. 

The Navy Times put it simply — “Maybe today’s Navy is just not very good at driving ships.”  They write: “The problem is years in the making. Now, the current generation of officers rising into command-level billets lacks the skills, training, education, and experience needed to operate effectively and safely at sea, according to current and former officers interviewed by Navy Times.” 

The Navy Times focusses on changes in training: For nearly 30 years, all new surface warfare officers spent their first six months in uniform at the Surface Warfare Officer’s School in Newport, Rhode Island, learning the theory behind driving ships and leading sailors as division officers.

But that changed in 2003. The Navy decided to eliminate the “SWOS Basic” school and simply send surface fleet officers out to sea to learn on the job. The Navy did that mainly to save money, and the fleet has suffered severely for it, said retired Cmdr. Kurt Lippold. …

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

“The elimination of SWOS Basic was the death knell of professional SWO culture in the United States Navy,” [retired Navy Capt. Rick] Hoffman said. “I’m not suggesting that … the entire surface warfare community is completely barren of professionalism. I’m telling you that there are systemic problems, particularly at the department head level, where they are timid, where they lack resolve and they don’t have the sea time we expect.”

Deployment location also plays a role. The NY Times reports:  A 2015 study by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the high demands of Navy fleets based overseas, like the Seventh in Japan, affect maintenance and training.

Investigators found that ships spent so much time at sea that there was not enough time for routine preventive repairs. And they said that while crews based in the United States were almost always completely qualified before deploying from their American ports, ships based overseas and juggling multiple missions relied on a “train on the margins” approach.

“In Japan, there are no dedicated training periods built into these ships’ operational schedules,” the accountability office’s report found. “As a result, these crews do not have all needed training and certifications.”

The bridge of each Navy destroyer is controlled by a round-the-clock shift of young officers, who must pass written and oral exams to qualify for the positions. Still, they typically are under 25 and may have little shipboard experience. Junior officers also move on to other assignments after limited tours.

“Are we shortchanging their basic training, especially as we rotate our junior officers whose tours aboard ship are nominally 24 months?” Admiral Crowder said.

Beyond shortfalls in training, many have suggested the Navy watch schedules cause sleep deprivation, contributing to errors, and in some cases causalities.  From the New York Times :

Fatigue can raise the risks. Seasoned officers and Navy studies have long warned of the perils of sleep deprivation, which sailors say is chronic.

“I spent 30 years in the Navy, which means most of my adult life, I was dead tired,” said John Cordle, a retired Navy captain who commanded a destroyer and a cruiser. “Officers basically have a day job and a night job, plus drills.”

Twice while commanding ships passing through narrow passages, he said, he fell asleep on his feet and his ship went off course. “Most of the officers I’ve talked to have a story like that,” said Mr. Cordle, who left the Navy in 2013. “We just don’t always share it.”

Taskandpurpose.com also reports:  “I don’t think I can remember not being completely exhausted on watch, be it the middle of the day or the seven-to-forever,” says August Sorvillo, a former Navy quartermaster who helped his ships navigate all manners of challenging channels and anchorages. “It’s safe to say I’ve bought enough Red Bull, Monster, and Rip-Its that I could [have made] a sizable down payment on a house.”

Lori Schulze Buresh, a former surface warfare officer, still cringes thinking about the deployment where she stood the Navy’s notorious “five and dime” watches: five hours on, 10 off, then repeat — no matter what time of day or night. “The hardest part is being awake at some point every night and still doing a job all day,” she says. “It is hard on a body and hard on the mind.”

This issue is not in any respects new. In 2014, the Navy modified submariners’ sleep schedules to attempt to decrease sleep deprivation to increase both performance and safety. More than 20 years ago, researchers established that “sleep deprivation leads to impairment in performance, loss of efficiency and deterioration in mood states such as tension, depression, aggression, fatigue, confusion, and vigor.” 

Now the Navy is undergoing a significant reassessment of it vessel operations. Ultimately, the larger issue is one of leadership. Too often after past casualties, the Navy brass would blame the senior officers and move on with the bureaucratic boilerplate statement, “we’ve lost trust and confidence in their ability to lead.” This no longer enough. As John Konrad recently asked in gCaptain:  “With four collisions in under ten months, when is the Navy going to “lose confidence” in its own ability to decide who should be in command?

We can only hope that the tragic and needless loss of 17 sailors is enough of a shock to bring about meaningful change.  Time will tell.

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10 Responses to We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us — Will the Navy Learn From Tragic Collisions?

  1. Willy says:

    So in short, some do gooder felt we didnt need training and sent newbs to work with insufficient training. This smells more like a congressional act rather than the need to relieve the naval fleet commander.

  2. Chris Roche says:

    It does not take any more than two matelots with bins out on the wings it would take an idiot then not to see an approaching object ship or otherwise, a one hour stint on lookout should be no problem. It is what we in our sailing ships do with the mantra THAT SHIP IN TROUBLE COULD BE YOU not much beats the human eye certainly not cyber attack. Do the worlds ships other than SAILING SHIPS keep a human lookout or even a fire-watch I wonder.

  3. D. Book says:

    We simply can’t afford to properly train unimportant people such as the folks who sail our ships, drive our tanks, fly our airplanes–in short, who make our armed forces strong and dependable. After all, there are too many illegals to care for, Mexican babies to birth, statues to tear down, left wing professors to celebrate and homosexuals to honor.


  4. Rick Spilman says:

    Well, that comment was hateful and ignorant. Yes, we have more than enough resources to train and equip our sailors and soldiers. Bigotry, however, doesn’t help the process.

  5. When I first visited America in the early 1950’s as a young Cadet in the Merchant Navy, saw the Statue of Liberty and learned of the details in the Constitution and the importance of “freedom of speech” to Americans. At that time discussion of politics and religion was strongly discouraged aboard our ships. Perhaps wisely as these subjects seem in many cases to cause distress amongst people particularly those living in close quarters in a ship.
    The above comment by D. Book is rather unpleasant but not necessarily entirely inaccurate, an expression of “freedom of speech”. Replies too and comments in this blog have referenced this current Administration as the cause of social interaction problems, not without some justification in my “freedom of speech” opinion.
    One has to respect that the comment was published and not censored hateful as it was but not ignorant as the social issues mentioned do actually occur in this country.

    Good Watch.

  6. Bob Koski says:

    I still submit that the proper forum to sort out exactly what happened and how, along with what the problems really are is an official investigation followed by a General Courts Martial for each of the bridge crews on watch during both collisions. 17 dead sailors during peacetime demands nothing less. Inadequate training is a symptom, not an excuse.

    This article makes pretty clear what the long term effects of massive budget cuts (sequestration) with little or no consideration to the effect on operations really are. I am amazed at the CD-Rom “SWOS in a box” only that higher command would buy into such an outrageous idea in the first place.

    This will be with us for years.

  7. Rick Spilman says:

    Captain Peter, you clearly do not understand the fundamental concept of freedom of the speech, which does not require the owner of a private blog to allow anyone to spew their hatred on its pages. Your defense of ignorance and bigotry is noted. I will continue to speak to against both. Perhaps the best course is simply to delete the hateful posts of bigots who comment on my posts. The fact is that I do already but it is a matter of degree. Perhaps I should have simply deleted the vile comment by D. Book. Then again sometimes simply speaking out has its own value.

  8. John Wofford says:

    As an eight year USN veteran, leaving the Navy as a BM1, I can relate to the whole sleep deprivation thing, between watch standing, work duties, unreps, and, as a senior deck petty officer serving on an ancient LST in Vietnam standing underway JOD watches which meant I usually had the conn whilst the OD and skipper were watching for things that go Boom.
    Previous to that I’d spent four years aboard an Adams class DDG where one of the high points was the year and a half spent doing something called the Mixed-Manning Demonstration, where 49 % of the crew were foreign and the rest USA sailors.
    Yes, there were cultural and language issues, where the most popular saying aboard ship was “In my navy I’m a chief”. But even so we managed to steam as an integral part of two fleets, we didn’t hit anybody and except for a brief grounding departing Bremerhaven there were very few negatives.
    After standing a few zillion BMOW’s I still can’t picture a bridge/CIC team
    on any destroyer type, with all that power and maneuverability, managing to collide with a slow, stodgy handling merchantman. The problems must be on a higher systemic level, where tempo of operations affect training and maintenance. In the case of Fitzgerald’s CO this was his second sea command.
    In the matter of D. Books post, sometimes the truth, however awkwardly posited, will ignite strong negatives simply because it points to a deeper truth. And that truth is that we, as a culture, are spending way too much time and resources on controversial social issues instead of basic military training.
    If we must fight all these wars then we must have well trained, well equipped and motivated warriors to fight them.

  9. DAVID RYE says:

    For what its worth but USN ship’s have what the R.N. knew as R.P.’s – Radar Plotters?

  10. DAVID RYE says:

    Corrected copy:
    For what its worth but do not USN ship’s have what the R.N. knew as R.P.’s – Radar Plotters? Or their equivalent system?