Commentary

A congressional perspective on the Fitzgerald, McCain collisions [Commentary]

The Navy has released reports into two separate collisions involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain.

Unfortunately, the tragic collisions of both the U.S. Navy destroyers Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan and John S McCain near Singapore were preventable. Since these incidents, Congress and the Navy have worked together to assess why these collisions occurred and, more importantly, determine what fundamentally needs to happen to ensure they do not occur again. This is a time to step back and truly reassess the Navy’s surface warfare community, implement necessary changes and end some current, failing practices.

Constitutionally, Congress maintains an important oversight role for all executive departments, including the Department of the Navy. Therefore, in response to the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions, I held a joint hearing of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, of which I am the chairman, and of the Readiness Subcommittee to receive testimony from Navy leadership.

At that hearing in September, Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, and Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, director of surface warfare, confirmed a few broader themes that have plagued the Navy for years. First, operational demands around the world continue to grow, but the Navy’s size remains the same or diminishes. Second, while forward-deployed naval forces — ships home-ported outside of the United States — provide increased global presence, they also assume more risk in training opportunities due to their high operational tempos. Third, the Navy does not receive the resources it needs, namely money and time, to properly conduct maintenance on ships and fully train sailors.

Then in early November, Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, briefed a second joint meeting, comprised of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and the Readiness Subcommittee, on the outcomes of two investigations — one specifically on the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions and the other on problems more broadly throughout the 7th Fleet. As CNO Richardson talked through the timeline of events and answered questions from my colleagues and me, it became evident that each ship’s leaders and watch standers made a series of poor decisions in the hours, as well as moments, prior to their respective collisions. With respect to the comprehensive review conducted under the direction of Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, CNO Richardson acknowledged significant training and readiness shortfalls and offered a multitude of recommendations to rectify them.

CNO Richardson organized these recommendations to the surface warfare community into three categories: actions that are currently in progress; actions that will take months to implement; and actions that will require further study before possible implementation. While I applaud the efforts the Navy has taken so far, including keeping Congress informed of progress, I think many of the numerous recommendations in the comprehensive review only address the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes. At the most basic level, we have warships valued in the billions of dollars with critical national security missions being led and driven by officers and sailors that, through no fault of their own, lack adequate training. In fact, because of the talented individuals in our Navy, crews are often able to learn on the job and overcome training deficiencies. But this is neither an ideal nor a sustainable model.

We, the Navy and Congress, need to look past some of the bullet-point fixes and look at the total problem. For instance, I don’t believe we should add more high-level billets to oversee tasks that should have already been handled by existing staff. Creating more bureaucracy often doesn’t fix a problem. Further, adding a week or two of training to existing classes like the Basic Division Officer Course and the Advanced Division Officer Course isn’t going to fix the lack of ship-handling skills demonstrated by the recent rash of ship collisions and groundings. If we want to improve ship-driving skills, let’s provide an actual training experience on a ship rather than in a simulator, and let’s consider outside, independent credentialing. We should consider having ensigns spend a year on a merchant ship and obtain their third mate’s license before stepping foot on a U.S. warship. This would ensure they have been trained, observed and tested under one set of standards in basic mariner watch standing before getting to their gray-hulled ship. A sailor’s first experience in ship driving should not be on the bridge of a Navy warship in a real-world scenario.

Infographic: a timeline of the collision of the USS John S. McCain

On Aug. 21, 2017, the Navy destroyer John S. McCain collided with the tanker ship Alnic MC near Singapore. Here’s a timeline of events.

We too often find that our surface warfare officers, or SWO, are jacks of all trades but masters of none ― this needs to change. At their basic core, SWOs should be competent and proficient ship handlers. When we look to the Navy’s other core warfare communities ― aviation and submarines ― most will tell you the best pilots in the world are naval aviators and that U.S. submariners are the best at operating nuclear-powered submarines. However, when it comes to ship handling, a host of groups will line up to debate who is the best. Currently, there are organizations that are better at driving ships than SWOs — there needs to be no debate on this. U.S. Navy SWOs need to have the same rigor in ship handling that we expect from the other communities in their respective craft.

Further, let’s take a look at how other communities develop their professionals. The idea of borrowing a proven pipeline from other communities is not uncommon to Navy leadership. For instance, I applaud the surface community’s recent development of their warfare tactics instructors, or WTI — junior officers who have been selected to focus on advanced war-fighting tactics within a specific warfare area. The development of SWO WTIs was directly adapted from the Navy’s Top Gun school for pilots. Naval aviators learned their lessons about eroded aerial tactics in the late 1960s, but it took the surface community until 2015 to realize there were deficiencies in their tactics. The same parallel exists now with ship driving.

From the reviews I’ve read and the briefings I’ve attended, it is clear the Navy is taking the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions seriously and working to make changes. I want to ensure we are making the right changes to fix the root cause of the problem. Congress will need to work with the Navy to provide the right funding for readiness and training, and I stand ready to do so with many of my colleagues. From these unfortunate incidents, let’s ensure we build a better, safer and more capable Navy. My colleagues and I will continue to demand from the Navy their overall action plan, including timelines, to address these tragedies, and we will require direct information on the progress of their plan every 90 days.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., serves on the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, where he is the chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

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