WASHINGTON — Senators briefed by senior Navy officials Tuesday said judgment and training mistakes were to blame for the deaths of 17 sailors in a pair of collisions with commercial ships this summer.
But the findings, set to be released publicly later this week, have also raised concerns among lawmakers about force readiness issues and whether adequate funding is being given to ever-increasing mission demands on the naval force.
“We need to provide our sailors, as well as soldiers and airmen, with the resources they need,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel.
“In this case, there were judgment mistakes and training mistakes, and a failure to adhere to procedures. But in general, we’re asking too few ships to do too many things. And that needs to be addressed.”
Wicker’s comments came after a classified briefing for committee members with Chief Of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and U.S. Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Philip. Davidson on Capitol Hill.
The event was focused on the monthslong investigations into a pair of high-profile Navy accidents: the June 17 collision between the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald and a commercial ship near the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors, and the Aug. 21 collision between the destroyer John S. McCain and a commercial tanker off the coast of Singapore that killed 10 more.
Wicker and other senators would not offer specifics of the investigation findings, which are expected to be made public later this week. But they did say the incidents raise troubling questions about Navy readiness.
“It’s a whole bunch of problems that cause ships to run into each other,” said committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when asked about the briefing. “We’re putting men and women in harm’s way because we refuse to give them sufficient training, equipment and readiness. It’s a failure of Congress.
“They’re doing the best they can, trying to do more with little. When sailors are working 100-hour work weeks, they’re not efficient.”
Those comments referenced a Government Accountability Office report from September that said reductions in crew sizes have forced some sailors to work more than 100 hours a week, raising the risk of future accidents.
Lawmakers have also used the spate of accidents in the Navy and ground forces to stump for more defense funding, arguing that training and maintenance funds have been trimmed to dangerously low levels.
But senators who attended the briefing would not say whether those funding issues are among the major causes of the McCain and Fitzgerald accidents.
They did say they are pleased with Navy officials’ transparency on the collisions thus far, but will be closely monitoring both the investigations and corresponding recommendations for months to come.
Pentagon officials are expected to release more details from their findings before the end of the week.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.