Navy’s top officer takes responsibility for series of deadly sea collisions

November 2, 2017

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson took full responsibility for the series of operational failures, training deficiencies and a general erosion of professionalism that led to a series of accidents in the Pacific, which left 17 sailors dead.

“It’s on me. As the [Chief of Naval Operations] I own this and I will not dodge that ownership,” Adm. Richardson told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. “I feel responsible for this,” he added.

The four-star admiral’s comments at the Pentagon came as the Navy released the findings on a pair of reviews, looking at the chain of events leading up to the at sea collisions of the U.S.S. McCain and U.S.S. Fitzgerald and the operational shortcomings within the Navy’s Seventh Fleet that led to the accidents involving both American warships.

In August, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer U.S.S. McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors. It was the third major accident in the Pacific involving Navy ships in four months.

Seven U.S. sailors aboard the U.S.S. Fitzgerald were killed when the warship collided with Philippine-flagged shipping vessel near the Japanese coast in June. A month earlier, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel off the country’s eastern coast.

The deaths aboard the McCain and the Fitzgerald prompted a two-day stand down of all Navy operations worldwide, and sparked the pair of fleet and service-wide reviews whose findings Adm. Richardson briefed Thursday.

The recent spate of accidents involving American warships in the Pacific were the result in officers and crew members lacking basic seamanship skills, such as navigation and situational awareness, along with “failures to follow the international rules of the road” when traversing international waters, Adm. Richardson said.

The problem was exacerbated by “rising pressure to meet operational demands” in the Pacific, driven by recent threats from North Korea and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the CNO noted.

The operational tempo for Seventh Fleet became defined by “high priority, short-notice taskings” which resulted in an overstretched force, he added.

“There is a mismatch” between the ships and assets available to Seventh Fleet commanders and the operations the fleet has been assigned to carry out, Adm. Richardson said. “When you have a gap between those two, that is risk,” he added.

During one of the incidents, Navy investigators found that senior commanders or sailors aboard the U.S.S. Lake Champlain did not know how to operate the ship’s steering console, which factored into the collision with the South Korean vessel.

“If you are not ready to execute the mission at hand, you have to make that clear. When you fail to do that, you become vulnerable,” Adm. Richardson said, noting pressure from Seventh Fleet’s higher command prompted some ship commanders to deploy, even if their vessel or crew were not up to snuff.

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