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Watch Officer From Lost Norwegian Frigate Faces Criminal Trial

Helge Ingstad
The stricken frigate Helge Ingstad, before slipping below (Forsvaret)

Published Jan 16, 2023 5:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

The top officer on watch aboard the ill-fated frigate KNM Helge Ingstad has been charged with "negligently causing damage to the sea, which could easily result in the loss of human life." It is the only remaining criminal case connected to the Ingstad's collision with the tanker Sola TS in 2018, which resulted in the loss of the warship and superficial damage to the tanker. 

The Ingstad collided head-on with Sola TS off the Sture oil terminal in Norway's Hjeltefjord on November 8, 2018. Despite attempts to keep her afloat, she gradually sank on a rocky, sloping seabed near the terminal. All crew safely escaped, and no major injuries were reported. 

The effort to raise the Ingstad was slowed by foul weather, and she remained submerged until late February 2019. She was finally refloated, but the damage from saltwater immersion was so extensive that the Norwegian Navy decided to scrap her. 

A report from Norway's Accident Investigation Board found that a significant share of the fault for the collision lay with the Ingstad's bridge team, which believed that the oncoming tanker was a fixed object. Despite extensive attempts at communication between the tanker, the VTS center and the Ingstad, the frigate did not attempt to alter course until it was too late. 

The captain of the tanker Sola TS and the VTS operator on duty were indicted after the casualty, but the charges were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence of a crime. The top watch officer aboard Ingstad at the time of the collision - who has not been named by prosecutors - is the only individual still facing charges. 

The prosecution argues that the accident was the result of the watch officer's negligence. "The defendant could and should have acted differently to prevent the collision," prosecutor Magne Kvamme Sylta told NRK. 

The accused's legal counsel, Tom Sørum, told Forsvarets Forum that imposing criminal liability on a single individual is not appropriate in the case of a casualty with multiple actors involved - including the crew of Sola TS and the VTS operator. Instead, Sørum said, the prosecution should have called the case closed earlier, when it won a large corporate fine against Norway's defense department. 

Some observers in the Norwegian armed forces are concerned that the criminal charge sets an unhealthy example. It is accepted practice for an officer to face administrative action, or court-martial for the most severe failings, but a civilian criminal charge is an unusual outcome for servicemember conduct in the line of duty. Adding prosecution to the list of an officer's concerns could interfere with recruiting.

"The indictment against the commander of the guard is problematic and could weaken the Armed Forces," Acting Head of the Joint Staff Organization (BFO) Rune Rudberg told Forsvarets Forum. "The consequence may be that it will be difficult to get personnel to take on this type of task in the future."