Navy pauses to go over the basics

As terrible as it is to lose a military service member in combat, there is consolation in knowing that the person did not die in vain. When a service member loses his or her life in an accident that might have been preventable, it adds to the woefulness. To those in the Navy, lives lost are shipmates lost.

The U.S. Navy has experienced four major accidents in the Pacific this year. Three were collisions with other vessels. Seven sailors died in June aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a container ship off Japan. An as-yet undetermined number, up to 10, died this week in the crash of the destroyer USS John S. McCain with a tanker near Singapore.

The surviving shipmates and the bereaved families have our sympathy and our thanks for the service of those who have died. The best that can be done in their memory is for the Navy to safeguard against whatever risks contributed to the collisions, including possible crew fatigue. That is what the chief of naval operations says it will do, starting immediately with Monday as the deadline.

In response to what he called the "trend" of four incidents in eight months, Adm. John Richardson has ordered all ships, including submarines, to take a daylong "operational pause" on staggered days before Aug. 28. Sometimes known as a safety standown, such a pause gives each "bridge team" — those in charge of carrying out the vessel operation they are entrusted with — a chance to examine their procedures and performance.

If the human factor is a connection among the four recent accidents in the Pacific, two of them with multiple fatalities, the Navy will have to address its staffing and the pace of deployments. That will be a challenge in the face of stepped-up demand in an increasingly hostile world. Collisions not only take lives, they remove ships from service, sometimes permanently.

Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, based in Norfolk, Va., will lead both a performance review of the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, and the operational pause for all ships. The submarine force, including Groton-based ships, will be reviewing the "six tenets" for standing watch: integrity, formality in communications and procedures, procedural compliance, technical competency, a questioning attitude and forceful backup.

The focus on basics indicates that the Navy suspects its problem may have to do with overtired or overstressed crews or insufficient training. Some have suggested longer missions with shorter breaks for crew members as a possible contributing factor. In recent years the Navy has stretched its crews further as the pace of deployments has increased, leading congressional committees to examine whether the limits have been reached. The Fitzgerald collision has been determined to be the result of poor seamanship by the crews of both the destroyer and the merchant ship.

The Navy says the fatal collision was avoidable. That is a sad verdict to pass, and the incident resulted in the removal of the ship's top command. This week the Navy relieved the commander of the 7th fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, for lack of confidence in his leadership.

The submarine force operates under a safety protocol developed after the sinking of the USS Thresher in 1963. The so-called SUBSAFE program begins with the construction of the ship and has been credited with the fact that no SUBSAFE-certified U.S. submarine has been lost since. But that doesn't prevent submarines from colliding with surface ships or underwater hazards. There have been several serious collisions involving submarines since 2000, and some of those incidents have been the result of crew error.

If the Navy is to grow from its current 277 ships to the size fleet it says it needs and the president has supported — about 350 ships — the problem of adequate training, support and off-time for crews will become even more challenging. Second District Congressman Joe Courtney, ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, announced Wednesday that his committee will hold a joint oversight hearing with the Readiness Subcommittee on the collisions when Congress reconvenes.

The operational pause will no doubt give the Navy updated information on how it's doing with the fundamentals and with risk management. A thorough review should strengthen all bridge teams. But it will just begin the conversation about keeping and improving safety standards with more ships and more human beings operating them.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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