Why Does the Navy Keep Having Accidents?
This has not been a good year for the U.S. Navy—specifically the 7th fleet, which is stationed in Japanese waters. There have been four collisions since January, two of them resulting in loss of life. That’s a staggering number when you consider that the average Navy vessel collides with anything only once every two years, if that. That includes minor brushes with buoys. It’s even rarer for two ships to collide, which has happened to two flagship vessels in the region this year.
The Navy’s accidents this year include substantial collisions/events, including:
- The USS Antietam running aground in Tokyo Bay (January)
- The USS Champlain colliding with a South Korean fishing boat (May)
- The USS Fitzgerald colliding with a container ship near Japan, killing 7 (June)
- The USS John McCain colliding with an oil tanker near Singapore, killing 10 (last week)
Admiral Mike Mullen, a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once hit a buoy during his first command—a minor collision that set his career back by a decade. An exceptional level of precision, professionalism, and vigilance is demanded of both commercial vessels and naval officers…which is why the four major collisions this year are so troubling.
What Multiple Collisions Are Indicating
Navy analysts, commanders, and reporters are attempting to answer why naval vessels are hitting other vessels or running aground at an unprecedented level. Former Navy officers, according to a story from the Press Herald, insist that the issue isn’t mechanical or technological—it’s human error. Longer deployments, less spending on maintenance, and shortened training periods have created a Navy that is facing a serious crisis of readiness.
Both the Navy and the Marines have each taken a 24-hour operational pause in order to review basic safety and fundamental skills—a rare event for any, much less two, military branches.
What Led Us Here?
The Washington Post reports that before Sept. 11, 2001, 60% of Navy ships were at sea at any given time. In 2009, naval vessels at sea reached 86%. The number has since gone down a bit, but the Navy’s vessels are 75% active still—with the pressure to perform not going down any time soon. The Navy’s activities in the Pacific are ramping up to patrol against North Korean attacks and to prevent China from claiming territory in the South China Sea.
Large destroyers like the USS John McCain or the USS Fitzgerald are key to these operations, stretching the Navy’s resources thin. As a result, deployments to the Pacific have been getting longer and longer—further pulling naval crews to the brink of their abilities. Experts have noted that ship-to-ship communication and navigation skills—as fundamental to the Navy as any skill set—has declined in recent years.
Another problem has been budget constraints. When faced with a shrinking budget, maintenance and training are the first items on the chopping block—even as missions increase. Even with less ships, the Navy is expected to perform at the same level. Between 1998 and 2014, the number of deployed ships remained flat at 100, but the size of the fleet shrank by 20%.
The Navy Issue in Context
This isn’t simply a matter of falling asleep at the wheel. The Navy is a massive system—when accidents occur like this in succession, it’s a symptom of a systemic virus that puts the rest of the fleet at risk. It also calls into question the Navy’s ability to work effectively during wartime. Experts on the Navy have expressed their worry about our ability to operate.
Randy Forbes, a former Virginia representative and a fellow at the Naval War College, commented on the Navy’s recent issues: “When our ships are having this much difficulty sailing in open waters, it gives us a lot of concern about what would happen if we were in a major conflict and how we would operate there. The Navy is in desperate need of additional resources so that they can do the kind of training they need, they can do the kind of ship maintenance they need.”
Even for an organization as large, well-trained, and well-resourced as the United States Navy, safety comes down to ensuring that people are spending time training effectively and maintaining their skills and equipment. As maritime accident lawyers, we’re deeply familiar with the systemic failures that lead to tragedy and loss of life. While the Navy is a great organization with a proud heritage, no one is immune to overwork, overuse, and system-wide exhaustion of resources.
If the Navy can succumb to atrophied skills and safety issues, how much more do private vessel companies need to invest in their maintenance and training programs?