When the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship last week killing seven sailors, I was drawn back to my own experience both serving in and working for the United States Navy. Collisions at sea involving Navy vessels are a big deal. It is assumed that a Navy ship can count on the combination of advanced electronics, maneuverability, trained watch standers, experience Captains, and standardized rules of navigation to avoid running into other ships. But it happens occasionally.
I was involved in one myself, serving on “another vessel involved.” I was on a destroyer being refueled off the coast of San Diego. Refueling at sea is a hazardous, but necessary exercise. While refueling, the Oiler sets the course and speed, and, importantly, maintains the watch to avoid other ships. In this case, the Oiler failed in this responsibility. A freighter was on a course to cross our bow, and the Oiler’s. Our destroyer, a more maneuverable ship, saw the pending danger and exercised an ’emergency breakaway’ in which we axed the lines and refueling hoses and took evasive action. The Oiler, however, was a big, lumbering ship and was unable to avoid collision with the freighter.
In 2009, there was another collision, involving the guided-missile destroyer Porter, this time with a super-tanker. In this case a voice recording of actions on the bridge was released. It depicts chaos and confusion on the bridge leading up to the collision, not characteristic of my bridge experience. You can hear it here.
While reminiscing about all of this, my mind wandered, and wondered, further, to the Fat Leonard scandal involving alleged contract fraud, which is still sweeping its wide net within the Navy ranks. The Fat Leonard scandal depicts a Navy lacking discipline and dedication to duty. It shows a large, pathogenic cancer on the Navy as an institution, that high ranking officers in highly responsible positions would engage in such venal corruption.
Are these things somehow related?
Has the Navy, as an institution, lost its way, leading to lax discipline and shoddy leadership? Seven sailors, enlisted men all, died on the Fitzgerald, and that is tragic. But were the seeds of their fate planted long ago?
The Porter and the Fitzgerald incidents were tragic accidents, although the Porter might have avoided collision with better seamanship. With the Fitzgerald, it will remain to be seen. But the evidence, including that the Fitzgerald was hit on the starboard side, indicating a departure from the usual port-to-port passing rule, will put the burden of proof on the Captain and the Officer of the Deck. In the end, I feel comfortable speculating that the Fitzgerald, as the Porter before her, was a victim of poor leadership and discipline.