In the years before the recent spate of accidents at sea, congressional investigators and military officials warned the US Navy that fewer ships, higher operational tempo, and overworked sailors were a recipe for disaster.
Reports said that “systemic problems related to long deployments, deferred maintenance and shortened training periods” were especially acute in the US 7th Fleet, the Washington Post says. In that command’s latest accident, the USS John McCain collided with a tanker in the busy Strait of Malacca last week, killing ten sailors.
While the ship’s captain and the fleet commander have both been relieved, it’s not clear that holding dozens of officers “accountable” that way will actually solve matters.
“The Pacific fleet has really been pressurized in a way that has harmed the surface forces’ proficiency in very basic things,” a former destroyer captain tells the Times.
A 2015 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found that deployed ships remained at a constant level of 100 between 1998 and 2014, even though the fleet shrank by about 20 percent.
An inflection point appears to have been the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ramped-up operations across the Middle East and North Africa. In 1998, about 60 percent of ships were at sea at any one time. That number peaked at 86 percent in 2009.
Pressure on the fleets decreased by 2015, yet the Navy still had three-quarters of operational ships constantly deployed as maintenance and fundamental skills such as navigation and ship-to-ship communication wilted, the report’s authors said.
The Trump administration would like to add 74 hulls to the Navy, but those ships will still need trained sailors to operate safely.
“History has shown that continuous operations over time causes basic skills to atrophy and in some cases gives commands a false sense of their overall readiness,” Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said last week as he called for captains to maintain proficiency in “the basics of our profession.”
But fatigue can dull even the best-trained sailor. On any given Navy bridge, three junior officers “share outsize responsibility to keep the ship afloat and its crew safe, standing watch for four to as many as nine hours a day on top of regularly assigned duties,” the Times reports.
“The job’s demands can erode the senses of even the sharpest young officers. A former surface warfare officer with nearly 30 years of experience said four hours of sleep a day were common among watch officers at sea.”
In fact, veteran sailors already spend too much of their time training newbies. A report by the Government Accountability Office in May said that “Navy officials and crew members we interviewed told us that sailors often arrive to their assigned ship without adequate skills and experience.”
Crew members in 10 of the 12 crew interviews we conducted told us that more experienced sailors routinely provide on-the-job training for less experienced sailors, so the time doing this must come out of sleep, personal time, or other allotted work time. In addition, Navy officials said that the time allocated for administrative and other duties should be greater, because it does not account for all of a sailor’s collateral duties.
[…] Without an analytically based standard workweek that accounts for all of the work that a sailor is expected to do, the Navy runs the risk of negatively affecting the condition of the ship, overworking sailors, and adversely affecting morale, retention, and safety.
The 7th Fleet’s navigation woes are hardly the first example of a naval culture creating deadly accidents. During the dreadnought era, British crews regularly circumvented the safety systems integrated into their ships’ designs by stacking shell propellant bags in hallways. This behavior became even worse under wartime stress.
As a result, the HMS Bulwark exploded at anchor in November of 1914, killing 800 sailors. A similar accident killed 454 of the 841 Italian sailors aboard the Benedetto Brin almost a year later. Struck by a mine at Gallipoli, the French battleship Bouvet suffered catastrophic secondary explosions from improperly-handled propellant and sank with more than 600 hands on board.
Yet because the admirals of the era valued a high rate of gunnery fire more than safe operations, nothing was done to stop warships from detonating. Only after the British Navy lost three battlecruisers to massive secondary explosions at the Battle of Jutland did anyone finally admit there was a problem.
Is the US Navy smarter than the British Admiralty a century ago? That remains to be seen.
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