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.