'Pivot to Asia' Sinking on a Coral Reef

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Battered by stormy weather and misguided by a faulty sea charts, the ship runs aground on a remote Pacific Ocean reef. The sharp coral tears into its wooden hull, forcing the 79-man crew to abandon ship. With the vessel too damaged for towing off, help is summoned from a distant port.

No, it's not the plot of the next "Master and Commander" film. The ship in question is the U.S. Navy minesweeper Guardian, and its predicament would seem farcical if it didn't raise so many red flags about the state of U.S. sea power.

The Guardian foundered on Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, roughly 80 nautical miles from the Filipino island of Palawan, on Jan. 17. What it was doing there is a bit of a mystery -- the reef is a Unesco world heritage site where ship traffic is banned. The crew was relying on flawed digital maps that misplaced the reef's location, and failed to heed warnings from Filipino authorities that disaster loomed.

A plan to pull the vessel off was abandoned over environmental concerns and the extent of the damage: The fiberglass sheathing on the ship's port side has delaminated, exposing its wooden hull to the elements. So the Navy salvaged what it could, including 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel that posed a contamination threat to the coral. Now two giant ship-borne cranes have been dispatched by the Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, to dismantle the Guardian piece-by-piece in a process expected to last a month.

So, what's to be learned? One lesson is that the U.S. military is going to have to be far more diplomatic in the much-ballyhooed "pivot to Asia," which is going to be heavily dependent on cooperation with allies. President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines has been understandably irate over the Navy's refusal to give a full accounting of what happened. He says the ship violated Filipino laws and says fines will be forthcoming. Officials say 1,000 square meters of the reef have been destroyed.

Another takeaway is that the Navy's fleet of 14 Avenger-class anti-mine ships is overextended, largely because of increasing need to counter the Iranian threat in the Persian Gulf. The ships, which went into service in the 1980s and early 1990s, were supposed to be phased out as the new Littoral Combat Ship came online. The $37 billion LCS project, however, is the boondoggle of all boondoggles. The only two ships built so far came in as twice their estimated costs; one had a cracked hull and the other corroded near its propulsion system.

Shallow-water capabilities are going to be vital in extending U.S. influence in Indian and Pacific Ocean waters. China is thought to have an enormous stockpile of 100,000 mines; and, as Saddam Hussein's Iraq demonstrated in 1991, mines can be a cheap and easy way for weaker powers to hamper our sea power. Yet the minesweeping version of the LCS isn't even scheduled for assessment until next year. In the meantime, the Navy has to rely on helicopters the Avenger-class fleet, now short the Guardian. Unless, of course, the HMS Surprise can be fitted out for duty.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net