Report: USS Fitzgerald's Deficiencies Were Worse than Acknowledged

USS Fitzgerald limps into Yokosuka after the collision (Image courtesy USN)

By The Maritime Executive 01-15-2019 05:00:42

According to a new report released by Navy Times, the U.S. Navy's public assessment of the USS Fitzgerald collision did not disclose the full extent of the deficiencies on board the ill-fated destroyer.

In the early hours of June 17, 2017, the Fitzgerald's bridge team was transiting southwards in heavy traffic on the approaches to Tokyo. Due to a series of human errors, she collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the destroyer and killing seven sailors. 

According to the Navy's public report, Fitzgerald's bridge team did not did not maintain a proper lookout in the hours prior to the collision, nor did they broadcast AIS, properly tune their radar or follow VTS lanes. They also failed to communicate effectively with other vessels or with their own ship's Combat Information Center (CIC), even in extremis, and they did not sound the general alarm until after the collision.

While these factors were concerning enough to prompt the Navy to remove all personnel involved, the new report suggests that there were other underlying factors. 

A separate Judge Advocate General investigation was conducted in parallel with the fact-finding inquiry, and its confidential report was used for the Navy's own legal and disciplinary purposes. Its contents were not intended for publication. According to this second report, written by Rear Adm. Brian Fort and first made public by Navy Times, the Fitzgerald's state of readiness had reached unusually low levels prior to the casualty.

Upon boarding Fitzgerald in Yokosuka, Rear Adm. Fort found the destroyer's CIC in a foul-smelling state of disarray, filled with personal items, workout gear, trash, food waste and bottles of urine. Key components of its high-tech equipment were broken, and the work orders for repairs had gone unfilled for months. On the bridge, the AIS system and the radar's auto-track (ARPA) feature were so unreliable that Fitzgerald's watchstanders did not use them. 

Based on interviews with Fitzgerald's crew, Fort concluded that morale was low and discipline was lax. "Procedural compliance by bridge watchstanders is not the norm onboard FTZ, as evidenced by numerous, almost routine, violations of the CO's standing orders," he wrote.

Fort's team also administered Rules of the Road tests to Fitzgerald's officers and found that they averaged about 60 percent; three out of 22 scored above 80 percent. The minimum passing score for licensed American mariners is 90 percent. 

Fort also noted that Commander Bryce Benson was not on the Fitzgerald's bridge at the time of the collision, even though he had only been in command for a few days and had never sailed the Fitzgerald out of the busy waters off Tokyo. “It is inexplicable that neither Benson nor [his XO] were on the bridge for his first outbound Yokosuka transit as CO, at night, in close proximity to land, and expecting moderately dense fishing and merchant traffic,” Fort wrote.