Navy Ships Suffered From Shoddy Maintenance, Overworked Sailors

Government watchdog to testify of lapses at House hearing

The USS John S. McCain steers towards Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore, following a collision with a merchant vessel while underway east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore on Aug. 21, 2017.

Photographer: U.S. Navy/Getty Images 

Several U.S. Navy ships based overseas have lapsed training certifications, overworked sailors and shoddy maintenance, the government’s top watchdog will tell lawmakers as Congress looks into last month’s deadly collision of the USS John S. McCain with a merchant vessel near Singapore.

The Government Accountability Office found that as of June 2017, 37 percent of the warfare certifications for cruiser and destroyer crews based in Japan — including certifications for seamanship — had expired, according to testimony submitted to the House Armed Services Committee and obtained by Bloomberg Government. This is more than a five-fold increase in the percentage of expired warfare certifications since 2005, the GAO’s John Pendleton will tell the panel Thursday.

There were four U.S. naval vessel accidents in the Pacific this year, three of them collisions. The latest collision, involving the USS McCain, accounted for 10 of the 17 deaths caused by the mishaps. The cause of that crash is still under investigation.

The accidents are unacceptable, Admiral William Moran, the Navy’s vice chief of naval operations, will testify.

“No matter how tough our operating environment, or how strained our budget, we shouldn’t be and cannot be colliding with other ships and running aground,” Moran said in the written testimony provided to the committee. “That is not about resourcing; it is about safety and it is about leadership at sea. We are shocked by these recent events.”

Lawmakers have been warning of a U.S. military readiness crisis and many, including Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and his Senate counterpart John McCain (R-Ariz), see the fatal accidents as the epitome of that crisis.

It started this year in January with the USS Antietam running aground near a naval base in Japan, followed by the May collision of USS Lake Champlain with a South Korean fishing vessel, and the June collision of the USS Fitzgerald with a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan. Then on Aug. 21, the USS McCain had its collision in the Straits of Malacca. As a result, the commander of the 7th Fleet was dismissed. The Navy also ordered an operational pause of its fleet for one day.

While overseas basing of ships provides additional forward presence and rapid crisis response, there were no dedicated training periods built into the operational schedules of the cruisers and destroyers based in Japan, the GAO found in 2015.

As a result, the crews of these ships didn’t have all of their needed training and certifications, according to Pendleton’s testimony. The Navy has made plans to revise operational schedules to dedicate training time for overseas-based ships, but this schedule has yet to be implemented, according to the GAO.

In addition, the Navy’s reductions to crew sizes in the early 2000s may now be creating safety risks, according to the watchdog. The Navy has reversed some of those changes but continues to use a work-week standard that reflects neither the actual time sailors spend working and nor their in-port workload — both of which have contributed to some sailors working more than 100 hours a week.

The Navy is also unable to complete ship maintenance on time. The GAO reported in May 2016 that in fiscal 2011 through 2016, maintenance overruns on 107 of 169 surface ships (63 percent) resulted in 6,603 lost operational days.

“Drawing conclusions at this point is premature,” Moran will say, according to his prepared testimony. “I am confident the Navy’s investigation process will highlight the areas that contributed to the mishaps, and point us to areas that we must address.”

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