U.S. Navy Releases Post-Collision Review

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Published Dec 29, 2017 9:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

On November 2, the U.S. Navy released the results of a comprehensive internal review of surface fleet operations, a sweeping study ordered by chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson in the wake of two deadly collisions earlier this year. The report accompanies a separate document on the casualties involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. 

The 33-member review team spent 60 days examining individual training and professional development; unit level training; command oversight of readiness; and the material condition and practical utility of navigation equipment. As expected, the review found significant systemic gaps, including:

- Inconsistent headquarters management of the command and control and readiness of assigned forces.

- Gaps in the way seamanship and navigation skills are provided and assessed for individuals and teams on surface ships – notably in the SWOS Basic Division Officer Course, which is only long enough to cover half the content required for qualification. The balance of the material is the "responsibility of the ship's training programs" and is completed on the job. 

- Inconsistencies in the configuration and oversight of bridge navigation systems – including serious issues with the interface on mission-critical controls, like the throttle and helm control system on the USS McCain.

- Gaps in the qualification and proficiency of the surface force in seamanship and navigation.

- Gaps in the shiphandling trainers and associated shore-based infrastructure to support training for safe navigation at sea.

- A reflexive “can-do” attitude, which ultimately led to an unrecognized accumulation of risk and a reduction in readiness

As many other observers inside and outside the Navy have argued, the panel found that the principal cause of these problems was a mismatch between operational needs and available resources, leading to an overtaxed force. Seventh Fleet was particularly vulnerable due to the high operational demands in the Western Pacific, and the risks accumulated "insidiously" over time, the panel wrote. These risks gradually became normalized, to the point that 7th Fleet "could no longer recognize that the processes in place to [assess] readiness were no longer working."  

"The demand for ready and certified ships to support operations required in the Western Pacific ultimately exceeded the quantity that could be generated from surface forces based in Yokosuka," the reviewers wrote. "By routinely employing forces that [did] not meet full readiness standards (e.g., 84 training events for Japan-based ships were cancelled due to operational demands), leadership marginalized the standard, and in turn degraded the training and certification process, resulting in increased risk to the [Japan-based] surface force."

In addition, the panel found that a decades-long drive for efficiency has reduced readiness fleetwide, as the Navy's Balisle report found in 2009: cutbacks to the training courses for surface warfare officers, plus increases to the standard workweek and "optimal manning initiatives" have all contributed to a decline in surface force preparedness.

To address specific deficiencies, the panel put forth dozens of recommendations for changes to training, oversight, operations and equipment. These included proposals to: 

- Cancel all existing training waivers (Risk Assessment Mitigation Plans) and review the readiness of every Japan-based Navy ship. 

- Improve the seamanship and navigation training for surface warfare officers, SWO candidates, quartermasters and specialists.

- Institute a standardized, continuous assessment program to review seamanship and navigation skills throughout a surface warfare officer's career – like MITAGS' Navigation Skills Assessment Program (NSAP), which the panel examined as part of its study. 

- Quickly purchase stand-alone commercial radar and "situational awareness piloting equipment," and remove existing, unauthorized commercial radars. [As an immediate aid to navigation, fleet commanders may equip ships with hand-held electronic tools, such as portable pilot units with independent ECDIS and AIS.]

- Accelerate plans to replace aging military surface search radars and electronic navigation systems.

- Establish and utilize near miss reporting processes to share lessons across the surface force.

A separate panel organized by the Navy’s civilian leadership is still conducting its own external, high-level review. “We have a problem in the Navy and we’re going to fix it," said Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer in recent testimony. “My Strategic Readiness Review will be an independent team comprised of military and industry experts that will look at and examine root causes, accountability, long term systemic issues, and then provide remedial insight." Spencer's review team includes representatives from Maersk, Crowley and BP.