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Groton— A Navy investigation into the USS Hartford’s collision with a Navy ship paints a picture of submarine crew members falling asleep on the job, spending too much time away from their stations and chatting informally while working.
"This was an avoidable mishap," Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, wrote in endorsing the Judge Advocate General Manual investigation. "Correction of any one of nearly 30 tactical and watchstander errors, or adherence to standard procedures, could have prevented this collision."
The Groton-based Hartford (SSN 768) collided with a Navy amphibious ship, the USS New Orleans, in the Strait of Hormuz on March 20. A heavily redacted copy of the previously top secret investigation, obtained by The Day through a Freedom of Information Act request, states the New Orleans "bears no fault" and places the blame on the Hartford's "ineffective and negligent command leadership."
The Hartford's command leadership routinely observed informal behavior by sailors operating the submarine, the report says, but did not immediately correct it. Those driving the ship would often slouch in their seats with one hand on the controls, and sometimes take their shoes off. Sonar operators and radiomen were missing from their stations for extended periods. Stereo speakers were added to the radio room to listen to music during work.
There were five known "sleepers," or sailors who would routinely nod off on watch, but no disciplinary action was taken, the report states. Two of the five sailors were working during the collision, although investigators found no evidence they were asleep.
The hands-off leadership style created a climate that "gave the appearance of tolerating routine inattentiveness and lax professional standards," the report concludes.
"This appearance of a lack of standards, and of a general reticence to hold personnel accountable to standards, did not inspire either the questioning attitude or the forceful watch team backup that could have enabled watchstanders to overcome even the inadequate strait transit/crossing plan they were tasked to execute, and avoid this collision in the process," it states.
The probe found the commanding officer, Cmdr. Ryan Brookhart, was not in the control room while the submarine was crossing the strait and did not prepare a comprehensive plan for the transit.
Investigators said that in the hour prior to the collision, about 30 tactical errors occurred onboard the Hartford.
Sonar operators, in charge of monitoring the ships near the submarine, were chatting informally for most of that hour. One of the sailors inserted a false sonar contact into the system so "he could use up all of his sonar trackers for amusement."
The sonar supervisor left his station frequently and the navigator was taking an exam while listening to his iPod in the wardroom. The officer in command did not look out of the periscope.
Sailors noticed a ship that would turn out to be the New Orleans at close range but misread its bearing rate, incorrectly recorded its position as farther away and failed to identify it as a warship.
After the collision alarm sounded, Brookhart arrived in the control room. But by then, the bow planes were out of commission and the periscopes would not rise. Fuel was leaking in the machinery room. Fifteen sailors had minor injuries.
In the wake of the incident, Brookhart was relieved of his duties and a request to discharge him from the service was sent to the Navy Personnel Command. The chief of the boat was reassigned and several crew members were punished for poor performance.
"People always ask why is the commanding officer almost always relieved when there is an incident, and the answer is that we hold him accountable for establishing a culture on a ship that is safe, efficient and capable of carrying out the mission," said Ronald S. Steed, a retired Navy captain who served as commodore of Submarine Squadron 2 at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
Steed said each submarine has a different culture, and it sometimes changes dramatically when a new commanding officer takes over.
"I've seen cases where a new commanding officer comes on board and in six months that place is a different organization," he said. "It becomes just like him. Where he's strong, they're strong, and where he's vulnerable, they may be vulnerable."
A submarine with a collaborative culture may draw in good ideas from everyone, but may falter when a unilateral decision is necessary, Steed said. A submarine with a decisive commanding officer may do well, but sailors can become dependent and not learn how to make decisions on their own, he added.
Another officer, who is currently commanding a submarine, said the "command leadership team sets a tone and they have a strong influence on how things go. ... Every boat has a personality."
After the collision, the Hartford surfaced about 3,000 yards from the New Orleans. The crew used wedges and a portable hydraulic jack to get to the top of the submarine's sail and survey the damage.
The Hartford is now being repaired by Electric Boat at a cost - so far - of $102.6 million. Repairs to the New Orleans cost $2.3 million.
The commander of the Submarine Force ordered a review of submarine collisions since 2001 to discern common themes. Harvey recommended incorporating the Hartford investigation and the lessons learned from it into the course curriculum for prospective executive and commanding officers, and reviewing the pre-deployment requirements for submarines.
"Things like what happened on the Hartford give good clarity on teams and leadership styles because we look at them really hard," Steed said. "They offer a lot of good insight. You don't want to have to depend on that if you can help it, but you want to get every lesson you can out of it."