US Navy fires commanders and switches on AIS after spate of fatal collisions

USS John S McCain steers towards Changi Naval Base, Singapore, following a collision with Alnic MC. Credit: US Navy


The US Navy’s (USN’s) Japan-based Seventh Fleet is tired and undermanned, according to both naval veterans and senior commanders, raising concerns about safety for both naval and merchant vessels.


As the Pacific Fleet has come under pressure to meet North Korean threats and challenges from China, its reputation has been damaged by several serious incidents. In June, USS Fitzgerald collided with 29,060 gt Philippine-registered box ship ACX Crystal and in August USS John S McCain and 50,760 dwt tanker Alnic MC collided. The two incidents cost 17 lives.


Since August, at least eight naval commanders have been demoted, dismissed, or have taken early retirement in response to high-level complaints about undermanning, lax maintenance regimes, inadequate training, and fatigue.


Speaking to the media in Singapore on 13 October, Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer said, “Over time, the balance shifted too much to the operational side and not enough to making sure that our teams were rested, were trained, and were able to go do the things we were asking them to do.”


The problems are not new. In May 2015, a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that extensive overseas deployments were limiting time for critical maintenance and training. This year, 37% of Seventh Fleet warships were operating with expired training certifications.


A GAO report released on 19 September found crew members were regularly working 100-hour weeks. As well as budget and staff cutbacks, it blamed a macho ‘can-do’ culture on board.


“There is a cultural factor here, where you’re more dedicated if you can stay awake,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm John Richardson told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). In a message to the fleet, he said, “When I hear about problems like persistent lack of sleep, consistently long work hours in port, problems in basic watchstanding, and more, it’s clear to me that much of the fix is with our junior leaders.” They needed “clear guidance, responsibility, authority and accountability”, he added.


Fatigue is suspected as the underlying cause of the recent incidents. Investigators believe the primary cause of the McCain collision was the bridge team’s failure to compensate for a sudden loss of rudder control. Shortly afterwards, the USN pledged to issue within 60 days a “comprehensive review” that would recommend operational changes.


Singapore’s Transport Safety Investigation Bureau has also started examining evidence of that incident, but is unlikely to report before mid-2018. The city-state’s Maritime and Port Authority revealed that its vessel traffic information system held radar data for both ships involved, but received AIS signals only from Alnic MC. SOLAS does not require naval vessels or troopships to carry AIS equipment. Additionally, naval ships are designed to minimise their radar signature; at night, this may mislead nearby vessels into thinking a warship is merely a fishing vessel.


Adm Richardson told the Armed Services Committee that AIS had long been carried aboard USN ships but was rarely used. He pledged that now, “in heavily trafficked areas, we’re just going to turn it on”.


Contact Stephen Spark

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