Collision at Sea
The recent spate of U.S. Navy accidents at sea has focused attention on the state of that service and raised questions about readiness and operational effectiveness in the Seventh Fleet. It has also been the subject of obvious schadenfreude on the part of at least one Chinese media outlet. Although each incident is unique, the worry is that training and material standards are not being maintained at the right levels, with suggestions this may be the result of inadequate funding and excessive operational commitments.
The answer to the U.S. Navy’s concerns will be complex. Various media outlets are now listing both recent and historic incidents involving U.S. Navy units. Those lists are long, but it must be remembered that the U.S. Navy has several hundred ships in commission, most of which are at sea undertaking complex and demanding work every day of the year. The amount of sea time and the demanding deployments of the Seventh Fleet’s forward-based ships are unlikely to be direct contributors to the accidents, most notably the Fitzgerald collision in June. Indeed, the accumulated experience of the bridge teams should make them more at ease with handling complex traffic situations than those new to the trade.
All seagoing navies go through bad patches, which may stem from systemic problems, but also result from individual misjudgements and sheer bad luck. The Australian Navy had the trauma of the Melbourne-Voyager collision in 1964 and then the aircraft carrier Melbourne’s collision with the destroyer USS Frank E Evans in 1969, although the latter incident was primarily the fault of the American ship. The U.S. Navy had a bad patch in the mid-1970s that included a collision between the carrier John F Kennedy and the cruiser Belknap that destroyed the cruiser’s superstructure and caused eight deaths. The Royal Navy’s destroyer Southampton collided with the container ship Tor Bay while on escort duties near the Strait of Hormuz in 1988, while her sister ship Nottingham nearly sank after grounding on Wolf Rock near Lord Howe Island in 2002.
Where the U.S. Navy may need to reconsider its own system is in regard to its 'unrestricted line officer' concept. Most modern Western navies have a division between platform engineers, those concerned with propulsion and hotel systems, and those who command and ‘drive’ ships as well as direct their sensors and weapon systems. All accept that logistics is a specialisation in its own right. The U.S. Navy’s mastery of engineering has long been a strength, but the requirement for all its line officers to spend time as platform engineers at sea may be at the expense of seamanship and navigation. There is simply not enough time to provide officers with the experience in all the four widely different areas of platform engineering, seamanship, combat system engineering and warfighting to do them all justice. If the Australian and British navies have a fault in their shared career structures, it is that the warfighting and combat system engineering nexus is not as strong as it should be, but there is a significant body of opinion that considers the U.S. Navy’s focus on platform engineering does not always result in its ships having the right internal priorities.
Two features of the present day, which are not confined to the U.S. Navy, may also be contributing to the problem of collisions at sea. The first is the tendency for younger personnel to be ‘captured’ by their electronic displays at the expense of actually looking out the window. This is a danger in areas of high traffic, since the amount of information can be overwhelming and the most sophisticated collision avoidance systems and their operators can be overwhelmed by the number of contacts and the geometry of their movement. In these circumstances, more experienced officers know to simplify the problem and pay much more attention to what they see through the bridge window than reports of radar contacts at extended distances. Calls for more training in the use of electronic aids need to be tempered with due emphasis on looking out and visually judging other ships’ aspects, distance away and relative movement - and responding accordingly.
The second is more subtle. The U.S. Navy in particular is unforgiving of error and very quick to relieve ship captains on the grounds of loss of confidence in their ability to command after an incident, although this is an approach other services are adopting to an increasing extent. There are obviously mistakes which are so bad that immediate removal is justifiable. But such a policy can create a propensity to risk avoidance, manifested here by a commanding officer being unwilling to trust their juniors to make decisions about collision avoidance and take the necessary action. With all the other calls on a commanding officer – and here the Seventh Fleet’s operational tempo may play a part – this can progressively wear a captain down, bringing increasing fatigue that may cloud judgement. It can also create a situation in which junior officers are unwilling to exercise their initiative and instead let a situation run on and worsen while they wait for their captain’s direction. This can mean real trouble in a crowded seaway, but it can have wider implications for decision making in complex and ambiguous situations. ‘Zero defects’ can evolve into ‘zero initiative’ and this is something no warfighting service wants.
James Goldrick AO, CSC is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1974 and retired in 2012 as a two-star Rear Admiral.
This article appeared originally at Lowy Institute's the interpreter.