The attack sub Montpelier and crusier San Jacinto collided Oct. 13 off Florida -- the third collision involving at least one U.S. warship in five months. (MC2 Mike Dimestico / Navy)
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When an attack submarine and a cruiser collided during training in the waters off Florida earlier this month, it marked a troubling turn for the force: the first time the fleet had seen three ship collisions within a six-month period since 2000.
The attack sub Montpelier and cruiser San Jacinto both sustained damages following the Oct. 13 incident, with the cruiser's sonar dome smashed and the top of the sub's rudder apparently sheared off. No crew members have reported injuries. Both ships retuned to port for repairs while officials ordered another high-level investigation.
So what's going on?
Current and former fleet leaders say that these cases are a concern, but caution that the root causes of the incidents remain unknown. One retired three-star suggested the fleet's strenuous pace may be partly to blame.
"It's very serious to have three of these in a five-month period, but I don't see a trend here," said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, the former No. 2 at Fleet Forces Command. "If there's any trend here, it might be that there's a higher tempo of fleet deployments right now."
Daly, who retired in 2011, added: "It's like driving more miles on the road — you're increasing the odds that something could happen."
To be sure, each case is different, and details are still emerging about what went wrong. This is especially true of the latest collision. Montpelier was submerged and coming up to periscope depth at 3:30 p.m. when it was struck by San Jacinto. Officials have not said why the ships were so close or established who was at fault. Investigations are underway.
Neither CO has been disciplined so far. Montpelier is commanded by Cmdr. Tom Winter and San Jacinto by Capt. Bill McKinley.
The last time the fleet saw this many collisions was from February to August 2000, when the oiler Yukon collided with a civilian vessel, the amphibious transport dock Denver struck the Yukon hard, and the destroyer Nicholson ran into the oiler Detroit.
Naval Surface Forces did not respond to a request for comment on the latest spate of collisions by press time.
In both of the earlier collisions this year, the service fired the skipper of the ship found to have been at fault. Both cases show that the shipdrivers, including the CO, got the basics wrong — and no one stepped up to fix them.
The destroyer Porter is now returning to Norfolk, Va., with some new decks and gear. It received a month of repairs after its starboard side was smashed by a supertanker Aug. 12, not long after the destroyer had passed through the Strait of Hormuz.
Details are emerging on the mishap. It was not long after midnight when Porter completed its 13th strait transit. As with most transits through Hormuz, the ship had been hailed by foreign navies, including the Iranians, and had to send reports on the exchanges to the fleet. The ship's leadership was focused on getting these messages out, according to an initial safety report. Around midnight, Cmdr. Martin Arriola, the ship's CO, left the bridge.
Meanwhile, the ship was confronted with traffic. Vessels going the other way were maneuvering from the open ocean toward the narrow channel. Among them was a vessel "not under command," which all other ships must steer clear of. Porter plowed toward this traffic at 20 knots, the Naval Safety Center reported in an Oct. 5 naval message.
The captain returned to the bridge around 1 a.m. Confronted with a busy shipping picture, Arriola made a fateful decision: He ordered the helm to turn left, the report said. That is a departure from navigation standards, which say that ships should generally turn right to steer clear. And Porter did not contact the supertanker to arrange passage.
In the moments before the collision, Porter ordered all ahead flank, its top speed. But the ship did not get clear. The result — a jarring impact that tore open a room-sized hole in the ship's starboard side and, by one account, flooded the radio room — was the product of a series of compounding errors anyone could have made, a new message makes clear.
"The ship had multiple opportunities to avoid this collision," the NSC's lead investigator wrote in the message on the class ‘A' mishap, when damages cost more than $2 million. An excerpt of this message was provided to Navy Times by a Navy official. "Had the [officer of the deck] slowed and come well right to pass astern of the contact eight minutes before the collision, had the CO decided to come right when he was informed there was another tanker beyond the not under command vessel four minutes before the collision or had the CO agreed with the OOD's recommendation to come right two minutes before the collision, the collision would have been avoided.
"It is truly miraculous that no one was seriously injured or killed in this incident," investigators concluded.
In this case, the ship drove too fast into traffic and when the CO made an unusual decision — to turn left — no one questioned it. That's exactly what the bridge watch-standers should have done, one Navy official said.
Turning left makes sense only if you're maneuvering around something stationary, said the official, who was familiar with the report and spoke on condition of anonymity. "The international agreement is if there's something wrong, you're going to turn right. That's how we're going to avoid our problems. When [Arriola] turned left, he broke the rules."
As with Arriola, the CO of the amphibious assault ship Essex made a mistake at a critical moment. Essex was taking position alongside oiler Yukon at 9 a.m. May 16 when the ship momentarily lost control of its starboard rudder. The ship's bow turned toward the oiler. Then the helmsman regained control.
At this moment, Capt. Chuck Litchfield told the conning officer to order "left rudder." Litchfield didn't specify how much. The conning officer, an ensign who had never driven an unrep approach before, ordered "left hard rudder." The rudder went over to left 30 or so degrees and stayed there for nearly 30 seconds.
Litchfield had intended some left rudder to steer the ship's bow back to port. But the left full rudder proved an over-correction. Indeed, some officers realized this.
A more experienced officer told the conn to "belay that," referring to the hard left rudder order. But the conn didn't make another order and so the helm stayed left. And after 30 seconds, the executive officer saw the stern swinging dangerously toward the oiler and yelled, "Watch your stern!" The momentum was already too great, however. Seven seconds later, Essex's stern cracked into Yukon.
One common problem in both the Essex and Porter collisions was that the CO made a mistake — and no one fixed it, the Navy official noted. Both "interjected themselves and they didn't have it all right," he said. "They paid the price."
Nonetheless, there remain many differences between the incidents. Essex's occurred during an evolution. Porter was deployed. And San Jacinto and Montpelier were training. Each incident prompted command and safety investigations, some of which are still ongoing.
"I think the Navy will relentlessly get the root cause and take action," said Daly, who's now the chief executive of the U.S. Naval Institute.
Asked whether a safety standdown, last ordered in 2009, was again called for, Daly replied that this would depend on what the investigations find.
"My experience was you usually looked at something like that when you saw a pattern of behaviors that needed to be addressed urgently across a wide swath of the force," he said.
Another worry is that the Navy overreacts to these incidents. Retired Capt. Jan van Tol, a former CO of the Essex, cautioned that this may cause some COs to become even more risk-averse, fearing that "an error by their subordinates might ding their careers." Over time, the culture could become less willing to take risks, he said.