Why Do U.S. Navy Ships Keep Crashing?

Fewer vessels and insufficient training may be a common theme in four incidents this year.
Ten Soldiers Missing After U.S. Warship Collision

The déjà vu collision of the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker near Singapore was the Navy’s fourth serious incident in the western Pacific this year, and mirrored a similar disaster in June that claimed the lives of seven sailors off the coast of Japan.

In January, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the U.S. Seventh Fleet is based. In May, the USS Lake Champlain ran into a South Korean fishing vessel. And just last week, the Navy relieved the commander of the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer that on June 17 was hit by a container ship, with deadly consequences. 

Now, with 10 sailors dead or missing following the McCain incident Aug. 21, the question of what, if anything, these accidents have in common has become front-of-mind.

Damage to the portside is visible yeserday as the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi Naval Base, Singapore.
Photographer: U.S. Navy/Getty Images AsiaPac

One distinct possibility is a fleet that’s stretched too thin, forced to combine training with deployments over a vast area teeming with U.S. strategic interests, according to two retired Navy officers. In a Facebook video, the chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, said he has directed “a more comprehensive review to ensure that we get at the contributing factors, the root causes of these incidents.”

“This trend demands more forceful action,” said Richardson, who ordered a short “operational pause” for the Navy to assess how the fleet operates. He said there is no indication of foul play, such as hacking or sabotage, but that all possibilities are being considered.

From 1998 to 2015, the Navy shrank by 20 percent, to 271 ships, while the number of vessels deployed overseas remained at about 100 ships, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, wrote in a 2015 article for The National Interest. Clark concluded that each ship has to work 20 percent more to meet demand.

The USS Fitzgerald after a collision with a container ship on June 17.
Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun/ Getty Images

The current fleet size doesn’t properly support the demand for 85 ships to 105 ships deployed to sea at any given moment—the average for the past 50 years—said retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, who also served as director of naval history and is now a senior director at the Center for a New American Security. “When you’re trying to keep that many out to sea … something’s got to give,” he said. “The bucket that gets taken away from is training. I think the training has begun to break down in the fleet.”

Bryan McGrath, a retired Navy captain who commanded a destroyer similar to the McCain, the USS Bulkeley, said that what “we’re seeing is a fraying Navy, especially over in the western Pacific.” The Cold War’s end led to a Navy-wide diminution of “basic war-fighting skills,” he said. “We won the war and as a result, we took a big deep breath, and now we are are recovering from that breath,” said McGrath, an analyst with defense consultancy FerryBridge Group LLC.

The Seventh Fleet has from 40 to 60 ships operating in the region at any given time. Both the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions occurred in darkness, with much larger commercial vessels, in seas with heavy traffic. The ships are two of the Navy’s most-advanced, most-maneuverable Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which were first commissioned in 1991 and constitute the core of the service’s surface warfare capability. With cruise missiles for striking land-based targets and a complement of undersea weapons to combat submarines, they are also used as part of aircraft carrier strike groups.  

“Our ships are well maintained, and our sailors are well trained,” a Navy spokeswoman, Captain Elizabeth Zimmermann, said on Monday.

The operational loss of the Fitzgerald and McCain, nicknamed “Big Bad John,” will have “real implications” for air defense in the Pacific arena, said Hendrix. In the western Pacific, the U.S. is determining how best to address missile threats from North Korea while containing Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.

“These incidents are not without problems and strategic implications,” said Hendrix. “Having these two ships taken out of action has a real tactical impact.”

The Navy’s overall fleet size, currently at 276 ships, is inadequate, given the size of its workload, Hendrix and McGrath said. In December, the Navy laid out an aspirational benchmark, seeking a 355-ship fleet as part of its “Force Structure Assessment.” That number of vessels is “the level that balanced an acceptable level of war-fighting risk to our equipment and personnel against available resources and achieves a force size that can reasonably achieve success,” the Navy said in the report.

Damage to the USS Fitzgerald, now berthed at its port in Yokosuka, Japan.
Photographer: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

But critics say the focus on bulking up to that many ships risks spending too much on relatively cheaper but less capable vessels such as the troubled Littoral Combat Ship, which is vulnerable to attack. The Navy “has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers at the expense of critically needed investments in areas where our adversaries are not standing still, such as strike, ship survivability, electronic warfare and other capabilities,” Obama administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote in a memo to the Navy in 2015.

For now, the temporary loss of the McCain and the Fitzgerald has made a complex playing field more difficult to manage.

“This nation has global responsibilities and global interests,” McGrath said. “And when you have two emerging competitors in China and Russia, and then two other threats in Iran and North Korea, that makes for a very, very busy Navy.”

One, he added, that is “thinly stretched.”

— With assistance by David Tweed, Andy Sharp, Larry Liebert, and Nafeesa Syeed

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