A Possible Scenario for the USS Fitzgerald Collision

USS Fitzgerald
USS Fitzgerald after collision

Published Jul 31, 2017 4:38 PM by Matthew Harper, CDR USN (Ret.)

How could USS Fitzgerald allow itself to be hit by ACX Crystal in open water, in clear weather conditions and in relatively light traffic? I am as stunned as both experienced mariners and the average person alike and will not claim to know the answer. I hope that some mitigating factor comes to light, but I am afraid that it will be a relatively simple answer, human error. 

I have endeavored to construct a scenario that could explain the chain of events that led to this catastrophe based solely on media reports and my experience on DDG-51 class destroyers. What differentiates this collision is the Commanding Officer (CO) being in his cabin. 

The U.S. Navy has extensive procedures to ensure the CO is in the right place at the right time with the right information. To many, this will seem an innocuous or even tragic detail, but for a Navy ship to collide at sea with the CO perhaps asleep, means there was an unbroken chain of events that included a massive and complete breakdown of the watchteams responsible for the safe navigation of the ship. 

Possible Scenario Part 1

FITZ watchteams were set at the lowest readiness level possible. A watchteam is a group of officers and crew controlling the ship on behalf of the CO and the number of personnel on a watchteam fluctuates on a scale between peacetime and wartime (each step increases the condition of warfighting readiness, in U.S. Navy parlance Condition IV, III, and I).

FITZ's watchteams, even in the best case, gave the CO only seconds indication of a collision. The readiness condition of the bridge watch would have had little discernable impact in this scenario. However, the readiness condition would dramatically impact the Combat Information Center (CIC), the operational heart of the ship and backup for safe navigation. Manned at the lowest condition of readiness, less senior and usually less experienced crew would be watching over the ship in CIC. 

This is not to say that a more senior watchteam could not also breakdown completely but I believe the eventual report will lay significant blame on the inexperience of both bridge and CIC watchteams.

Possible Scenario Part 2

ACX Crystal was in a relative position to FITZ for some period of time. ACX Crystal was steering on a set course and speed that paralleled that of USS Fitzgerald presumably on her starboard quarter (behind her to the right) at about two to three nautical miles, or closer. 

Over time, the bridge watchteam became comfortable with the ACX Crystal remaining in the same approximate position. At this location, being relatively close, CIC would have a harder time tracking the ACX Crystal on radar and could easily have shifted focus to ships further away. [This is not to write that CIC could not track the ACX Crystal at this range. but it is harder for a small watchteam in FITZ's CIC to continually track a ship at close range.]  

The other significant tool in CIC often used for tracking ships at close range is the "gun camera," but it was probably not being operated.

Possible Scenario Part 3

FITZ made a routine (for a Navy ship) maneuver. FITZ maneuvered, most likely contrary to the Nautical Rules of the Road, to meet a future operational Navy requirement. Navy ships are unpredictable, always going someplace and often in a hurry, not always easy to talk with on the radio and always training new and inexperienced crew, all to the consternation of the civilian mariners. 

While a Navy ship's operational tempo does not obviate them from following the Nautical Rules of the Road (an excellent breakdown of the requirements and difficulties are described here) it does perhaps explain why FITZ made an inexplicable turn to starboard in front of an oncoming ship. (An "inexplicable turn” and having the ACX Crystal off the starboard quarter is my best guess of the situation. There is always the possibility that both ships remained on the same course and were CBDR (Constant Bearing Decreasing Range) for some length of time. The problem with this supposition is that it strains believability.)

In this scenario, FITZ was either in a "night steaming box," which is an imaginary box the CO keeps the ship in through the night to ensure the ship will be in the right position for the schedule the next morning or on a predetermined course. In this case for the readers understanding, imagine it was a 15nm by 15nm box drawn out on the chart (map). The FITZ could have either driven around the edge of the box or back and forth within the box at a slow speed to conserve fuel. 

There is also the possibility FITZ was "trailing a shaft." This is where one of the ship's two shafts and propellers are allowed to spin freely, with no power. This dramatically reduces fuel consumption but also changes the maneuvering characteristics of the ship. (When a DDG as a two shaft/propeller ship tries to turn against or away from its trailing shaft, it ceases to be corvette-like and maneuvers more like a ponderous merchant ship. This would play a significant factor during FITZ's turn or if the bridge crew was trying to maneuver to correct their mistake.) 

The other possibility was FITZ was driving a predetermined course or had a specific position she had to make in the morning and maneuvered to make the rendezvous.

Possible Scenario Part 4

The Captain was not called for a "routine" maneuver. This scenario accounts for the CO being asleep and perhaps the reason the CIC watchteam didn't wake him up (1). In this scenario, the FITZ watchteam had already called the CO to report the ACX Crystal in its position on the starboard quarter, and the CO understood there was no risk of collision and then went back to sleep. 

Over time the watchteam grew comfortable with the position of the ACX Crystal and then forgot about her. At some point, the bridge team needed to maneuver the ship to either stay in their night position box or to get to a prescribed position in the morning. This maneuver took the ship to starboard (right) and into the path of the ACX Crystal (2). The CIC team also lost track of the ACX Crystal, because she was so close and perhaps even concurred with the maneuver to starboard also not remembering the merchant ship off the starboard quarter. 

Possible Scenario Part 5

ACX Crystal was on autopilot. On board the ACX Crystal, I believe initial analysis based on AIS data that she was on autopilot with no one on the bridge. This is explained well here. I also do not believe the very time late report from the Captain of the ACX Crystal (to the owner of his ship, not the Japanese coast guard) that he used flashing light to attempt contact with the FITZ, maneuvered and then collided 10 minutes later. This makes absolutely zero sense.

All of these proposed events attempt to explain the massive breakdown on board the USS Fitzgerald in her collision with ACX Crystal. As with most maritime collisions or groundings, this chain of events relies on series of failures in which none of them by themselves would lead to collision. Every Navy investigation reveals is numerous places where the chain of events could be broken by any number of people on board. In the case of USS Fitzgerald, this disastrous chain was never broken.

U.S. Navy Standards

Finally, I write this article merely to bridge the huge divide between the public and what the U.S. Navy does at sea every day since the end of World War II. Navy ships and specifically U.S. Cruisers and Destroyers are, I argue, the most complex and overused pieces of hi-technology steel sitting in salt water found anywhere, ever. With crew sizes of approximately 250-325 they are expected to be experts in multiple areas (Surface, Air, Subsurface, Tomahawks, Seamanship, Navigation, Small- Arms Security, International Law, Cyber Security, Gunfire Support Ashore, Command of groups of ships, Engineering and Maintenance and perhaps most alarming in the 21st century significant rust control) with little to no room for error. 

If anyone questions the standard Navy ships are held just compare the firings of Navy ship Captains (O5s and O6s) to O5s and O6s in any other service. Ships in the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet will train to fight in support of the peninsula, then sail through the South China Sea to exercise in Southeast Asia, before meeting up with Marines to train in Okinawa to finally make it back home to Yokosuka for an abbreviated maintenance period before they do it all again. The ships of the 7th Fleet meet all their requirements exceptionally well 99.9 percent of the time…


(1) In my opinion, both the CIC Watch Officer (usually a junior officer) and CIC Watch Supervisor (usually a 1st Class Petty Officer) should have called the CO if the bridge was putting the ship in extremis. At a minimum, the CIC team should have logged in the official CIC record a maneuvering recommendation that the bridge did not follow. I am afraid based on the scenario above there will be no recommendation and or record in the CIC log.

(2) The after lookout. Similar to the watchteams, the aft lookout would have been comfortable with the ACX Crystal's continued position on the starboard quarter. When the FITZ started her turn to starboard taking her in the path of the ACX Crystal the lookout would have eventually noticed (depending on the quality this could have taken a while) and then probably had to call into CIC. This communication path to CIC and then within CIC to get to the bridge watchstander is an entirely different issue but not unbelievable that this did not happen correctly or quickly. 

About the Author

Matthew Harper, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret) was a Surface Warfare Officer who served on three DDG 51 class destroyers, USS Cole (DDG 67), USS Shoup (DDG 86) and most recently as Executive Officer on USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) a sister ship of USS Fitzgerald also permanently forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan. In addition to having done three days of damage control after a terrorist attack on USS Cole, he holds a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School and is an award winning author for Chinese Missiles and the Walmart Factor published in Naval Institute Proceedings.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.