It has not been a good few months for the United States Navy.
Joseph P. Aucoin, Vice Admiral of the 7th Fleet of the Navy, was relieved of his duties following a series of collisions by navy ships. The decision was announced Wednesday by Admiral of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, Scott Swift.
The most recent embarrassment for the Navy came Monday, when a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca, located between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Ten US sailors were declared missing, with at least some presumed dead, with five more injured as a result of the collision. It also served as a spark in a long-standing dispute between Malaysia and Singapore revolving around ownership of certain lands and waters.
While the crashing of the USS McCain is tragic and alarming, it is far from the only public embarrassment for the Navy in recent months.
In January, the USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, resulting in significant damage to the ship’s propellers and the loss of 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid. In March, the commander of the guided missile cruiser at the time of the grounding, Captain Joseph Carrigan, was relieved of his duties.
In May, another guided missile cruiser, the USS Lake Champlain, collided in international waters with a South Korean fishing vessel just east of the Korean Peninsula. While damage did not prevent either the USS Lake Champlain or the Korean vessel 502 Nam Yang from proceeding under their own power, the crash was nothing short of a PR nightmare for America’s Navy. At a time in which U.S. and South Koreans were working together to combat increased nuclear aggression by North Korea, such a debacle was almost beyond belief.
Then in June, the USS Fitzgerald was involved in a collision with a merchant ship in Japanese waters, resulting in the death of seven American sailors. Just this past Friday, the top two officers aboard the USS Fitzgerald at the time of the crash, Commander Bryce Benson and his unnamed second in command, were relieved of their duties as punishment for the mishap. Ironically, it was the now-relieved Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin who issued this damning assessment of the crash’s cause at the time:
‘The admiral of the 7th Fleet felt that “serious mistakes were made by the crew" of the Fitzgerald during the June collision with a Philippine container ship that led to the death of seven sailors, according to Admiral William Moran, the vice chief of naval operations.’
He said "the bridge team" — the sailors responsible for keeping watch on the ship's bridge to ensure it remains safe — had "lost situational awareness," which left them unable to respond quickly enough to avoid the disaster once the oncoming container ship was spotted, according to the Associated Press.’ (NBC News)
It would be Aucoin who would be held ultimately accountable for the most recent crash of the USS John McCain, and perhaps retroactively the lack of control shown by numerous men under his command in the other two incidents.
The series of publicized snafus by the Navy prompted Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson to order an “operational pause” of global operations, urging commanders to take the opportunity to ensure that soldiers are adhering to the tenets of good seamanship. To most, including Naval representatives, the tenets of good seamanship would be presumed to constitute the most basic set of requirements for admission into the Navy in the first place.
However, the recent crashes have clearly led naval leadership to question the capabilities and preparedness of their own sailors, and for good reason. The expectation that crashes and self-inflicted casualties and injury be avoided is an elementary one, but this expectation has not been met in recent months. The resulting dismissal of Vice Admiral Aucoin is one of the most high-profile terminations in recent naval history.
Such a flurry of collisions and the instance of running aground are not acceptable, as evidenced by the swift action taken to replace leadership. However, it is not completely surprising considering that the naval fleet has been reduced by 14%. Funding cuts have meant that naval ships are being deployed on longer runs with more frequency, likely causing higher levels of fatigue and inattentiveness in crews and leadership.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been in its entire history. The fleet, stretched thin by these cuts, is faced with shorter times in between deployments for training and maintenance, another reason why these incidents have become increasingly likely. And, as resources are diverted to fix these ships and implement the necessary training, the ships from which resources are diverted face an increased risk of incident.
It is a cycle that has no apparent solution. While the negative press and resulting attention given to retraining should help, the extent of this solution’s effectiveness is unclear.
The army and marines are facing similar issues, with marine aviation fatalities reaching a five-year high. As tensions in the Pacific continue to escalate, the timing of this stop-gap military funding is not convenient. While America is known for its military spending, those unfamiliar with the resources needed to keep pace in the arms race do not understand that our naval fleet is aging and funding for other military branches is not as robust as may be assumed.
And, we are seeing some of the consequences in the form of poor naval training and increased aviation crashes. These are symptoms of a larger funding problem that must be addressed before significant conflict involving the United States arises.