Does US Navy Can-Do, Never-Say-No Culture Promote Accidents?

The US Navy has rightfully been undertaking a considerable review and revaluation of the problems that led to the recent ship collisions between the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain with commercial vessels, resulting in the deaths of  17 sailors. The results so far are rather mixed. A report issued on November 1 on the two collisions, deemed the sailor’s deaths to have been “avoidable” and criticized mistakes made by the ships’ sailors and their commanders prior to the collisions. A US Government Accountability Office report in September highlighted deficiencies in training resulting from lengthy deployments of US ships based in Japan. Some in the the Navy have also pointed out the risks of getting inadequate sleep onboard these ships due to demanding watch schedules.

The reports, by and large, all sounded very familiar and have a tendency to focus on the end results of mistakes and deficiencies rather than their underlying causes. A recent article in Stars and Stripes, however, addresses failure in Navy culture as addressed in a Navy review released recently which spotlights weaknesses contributing to decreased efficiency and safety in the fleet. They also raise the Balisle Reporta scathing 2010 internal Navy report on the surface fleet’s readiness, which urged officials to counter the “underway at all costs” mentality. They write:

The review makes clear that the never-say-no ethos has been a factor in undermining the Navy’s readiness — particularly the Japan-based fleet — where too few officers with authority in the chain of command have drawn a red line over safety and training concerns.

But the Navy also faces other entrenched mores as it attempts to institute a system of “near-misses” reporting for Pacific Fleet ships and continues to grapple with a fleet-wide problem of commanders being removed for personal misconduct.

“We have a can-do culture,” said Adm. John Richardson, chief of Naval Operations, during a Sept. 19 Senate hearing about the collisions. “That’s what we do. Nobody wants to raise his hand and say, ‘I can’t do the mission.’ But it’s absolutely essential that when those are the facts we enable that report.”

Richardson described the pervasive culture of deploying without proper training and certification in 7th Fleet as “kind of this boiling frog scenario over time,” meaning that problems of a lukewarm level slowly built up into a deadly boil before being fully perceived.

But the Navy has long been aware of this particular ethos hamstringing its surface fleet.

In the wake of several high-profile ship disasters this year, a Navy comprehensive review released Thursday takes aim at the consequences of a widespread culture of “getting to yes,” a go-go approach that has left many of the fleet’s forward-deployed ships inadequately maintained and crews overworked, undermanned and short on training.

The so-called Balisle Report [from 210] noted that the Navy’s decade-long policy of seeking greater efficiency — primarily through rejiggering maintenance and manning schemes — had “served to steadily reinforce the notion that less readiness is acceptable.”

“From the most senior officers to the most junior petty officer the culture reveals itself in personal attitudes running from resignation to frustration to toleration,” the report said.

“While the severity of current culture climate may be debated, its decline cannot. If left unchecked, a declining culture can only generate a worsening level of surface force readiness.”

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4 Responses to Does US Navy Can-Do, Never-Say-No Culture Promote Accidents?

  1. Reading the reports of the accidents incurred by the several USN vessels of the Pacific Fleet was quite a shock. It appears that not one of the Bridge Watch had a sound knowledge of the Rules of the Nautical Road. As one who was trained under the British system it sounds impossible as under our system the Examiners had us answer questions on firstly what to do in various situations then quote verbatim the relevant Rule one sat across the table for at least an hour.
    I remember reading quite some years ago now that the Naval Academy was no longer teaching celestial navigation I do not know if they ever changed their minds but maybe it was that time that they stopped teaching the Rules of the Nautical Road also. This would mean that the current Admirals do not know the Rules of the Nautical Road themselves. Coming from the age of traditional seafarers using seamanship, geometry & trigonometry, Nories nautical tables, celestial navigation, sextants, compasses and chartwork to navigate the worlds oceans it is difficult to relate to the button-pushing nautical technocrats of today.
    One of these Admirals stated that the USN has to go back to basics. Well the Rules of the Nautical Road is the place to start and all USN Watchkeepers Officers and Ratings should know them thoroughly or not stand Bridge Watch. From those same reports it would seem that the button-pushing nautical technocrats do not know which button to push. Finally if there is only one lookout person available place that person on the starboard side to monitor the dangerous semi-circle and explain to that person the reason why and the importance of this duty.

    Good Watch (and one really means Good Watch)

  2. R. W. Jacks says:

    The finest training in the world does not alleviate the risk inherent in being undermanned and bone tired.

  3. Phil says:

    A news after the McCain wreck said the Navy will now turn-on AIS (automatic
    identification system).

    However you cant have it on during battle.

  4. R.W. Jacks: I would completely agree with you as regards tiredness and this is where training leads to effective usage of personnel available. As to undermanning one would suggest comparison of naval and merchant navy crews. On my container ship running from three (3) U.S. and Canadian ports to eleven (11) West African ports I had a crew of twelve (12) persons. Perhaps you would agree we were by practical standards “undermanned”, though by IMO requirements could have had only ten (10) persons, for both Watchkeeping and cargo operations. With planning we managed quite well and to avoid Watchkeeping tiredness I stood a Bridge Watch from 0400-0800 and 1600-2000 instead of just sitting in my cabin reading paperbacks waiting to be called by an OOW needing advice. This gave me the opportunity to take star-sights, which I enjoyed doing, and interacting with my shipmates. Four languages English, Spanish, Basque and French were spoken on board but all helm orders were given in English which one made very sure was understood by the helmsman when we used hand-steering instead of automatic. On long pilotages such as going up the Congo River to Matadi the Chief Engineer stood by the ER bridge controls with the Second Engineer in the Engine Room. Keeping it flexible and utilizing our small crew effectively kept us safe and not overly tired which lets face it is part and parcel of seagoing.

    Good Watch.