SINGAPORE (Jan. 30, 2012) A Sailor aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG 91) throws a line to a tugboat as the ship prepares to get underway following a port visit to Singapore. Pinckney is a part of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eddie Harrison/Released)

Still Adrift: 7th Fleet’s Continuing Crises

In this piece following up from his previous coverage on the topic, United States Navy Surface Warfare Officer Anthony Clay examines the continuing crisis gripping the Navy’s 7th Fleet. The Fleet has long been central to the U.S’ warfighting readiness, while simultaneously being plagued by seemingly avoidable errors. Despite major command chain culls and reform, these issues appear ongoing at a critical time when the Asia-Pacific region remains central to the U.S’ geopolitical strategies, and the Navy must solve these issues or find itself facing real crises with significantly degraded capacity.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

I wrote recently about the troubles in the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet after the second major collision, and fourth admiralty incident this year for the United States’ forward deployed forces in the Western Pacific. This week has now seen reports of yet another collision, albeit a minor one between a tug and the USS Benfold, after the tug lost power while conducting training with Benfold. It appears that the troubles are still mounting in 7th Fleet despite the Navy’s best efforts to cull the Fleet’s senior leadership.

In the time following the collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, the commanding officers of these ships were relieved, the commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15 was relieved, along with the Task Force Commander, CTF-70. Additionally, a Rear Admiral, Commander of Seventh Fleet, was relieved while the Commander of the Pacific Fleet announced his retirement after being passed up for the U.S. Pacific Command. It is rare to see so many leaders in a single chain of command be let go in such a short time, and compounding the effects of this is the Fat Leonard scandal, also centered on Seventh Fleet, and subsequent culling of senior officers.

The recently released report on the collisions this summer was odd. Combined into one report, and unusually short at a combined 72 pages, it was light on the details typically associated with these reports. For example, the report on the grounding on the USS Guardian in 2013 was 160 pages. One positive element of note was the degree to which the post-collision actions were covered, which showed the depth of the heroism of the sailors on these two ships.

Telling the story of the lead up to these collisions only served to reinforce the issues plaguing 7th Fleet that I touched on last time: Training, Operations, and Culture.

In the case of Fitzgerald, her crew was required to be onboard at 0600 local time. Their day was then filled with nearly everything the ship could do: getting underway and conducting an ammunition onload at anchor, helicopter operations, small boat operations, and conducting transits in one of the most challenging waterways in the world. This assuredly meant that the team on watch on watch when the collision happened (at 0130) had been up since at least 0500 the previous morning. And when presented with a confusing array of surface radar contacts, the team made the wrong decisions. While mix ups happen, and certainly given the density of the traffic it was more likely, it is still a skill that improves with practice and training. Additionally, the Captain was never called in spite of his standing orders to call him should another vessel have a closest point of approach (CPA) within a prescribed distance. So here we have the lack of training and experience in radar contact management, excessive operations, and the culture of planning impossibly long days and not reporting issues to superiors.

For the McCain, it was much more a lack of understanding of the equipment being used to control the ship. When the helmsmen are unfamiliar with how the helm console works, we are presented with a clear recipe for disaster that speaks to a poor training process. Ongoing operations played a lesser part of the background to this collision, and instead it appears that a lack of training and proficiency from the Commanding Officer (CO), through the Officer of the Deck and Conning Officer, to the helmsmen was to blame. One aspect in regards to culture was that the CO made the decision to not set a Navigation Detail, which adds additional and more qualified staff to key positions on watch, including the helmsman.

The CO also ordered an unplanned change in the operation of the helm, shifting some of the controls to a different console. The confusion behind a relatively new piece of ship control equipment is something I have seen firsthand, and in the most benign circumstance can cause great confusion. This is equivalent to not understanding how to steer or press the correct pedals in your car because they have been recently switched around. The helmsman, and the lee helmsman (added to control the engines so the helmsman could just worry about steering) had insufficient training and experience in transfer of control and the subsequent operation of the consoles, and were the primary catalyst in the chain of events leading up to the collision. The inattentiveness of everyone else on the bridge then caused the collision.

Despite this, I really must emphasize that the actions of the sailors on both ships were nothing short of perfect. Despite the numerous missteps in training and culture leading up to the collision, the Navy’s focus on damage control training was the central reason these were not greater tragedies. If every Marine is a Rifleman, then every sailor is a Damage Controlman. The responses by sailors in interviews after the collisions showed that their training in egress and flooding scenarios formed an integral part of saving many lives and the ships themselves. This proficiency, urgency, and professionalism is what the Navy should seek to embody in all of its training, and not just damage control.

Anthony Clay is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy who has served in every operational fleet, and most geographic Combatant Commands. He has an International Relations Degree from Tulane University and a Operations Research Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. Anthony is currently assigned to a staff posting within a numbered fleet.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eddie Harrison

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