September 4, 2018:
In 2017 the U.S. Navy 7th fleet lost three ships to “navigation error” within an eight month period. The January incident, involving the cruiser Antietam, was a grounding while leaving an anchorage in Tokyo Bay. The damage to the ship was not great and Antietam was repaired and back in service by the end of 2017. The captain was relieved and there was some mention of poor training for the crew members on the bridge who were in charge of lifting anchor and heading for sea. In June and August, it got worse with two 7th Fleet destroyers colliding with commercial ships at sea. These two collisions left 17 sailors dead and all were apparently related to lower readiness levels and overwork (and subsequent crew fatigue) in the ships of the 7th Fleet. The two Burke class destroyers (the Fitzgerald and McCain) that suffered fatal collisions had some of the worst readiness and training ratings in the entire fleet. These ratings exist to spotlight ships, and their crews, that need the most attention from senior leadership, especially the fleet commander. That was not happening and since the new Secretary of Defense is a retired (in 2013) marine general with firsthand experience with what was going wrong in the navy, the admiral responsible was held accountable in the traditional way and within weeks of the August collision, it was decided to relieve the 7th Fleet commander. Note that while both the Marine Corps and the Navy are part of the Department of the Navy the two organizations have evolved into separate services. The Marines have always been different and that meant marine generals could get away with being more traditional and hard ass than navy admirals.
The most severely damaged of the three ships was the Fitzgerald which won’t be back in service until 2020 and will consume most of the nearly one billion dollars it cost to repair the three ships. The McCain damage is being repaired in a Japanese shipyard and while the work could have been completed by the end of 2018 it was decided to keep the McCain in the yard into 2019 to undertake some other work that would have to be done eventually and it would save time and money to do it now.
Less easy to deal with was the problems with leadership and training that the three accidents made rather obvious. In 2017 it was no secret that these problems existed throughout the navy but were most acute in the 7th Fleet which has been the busiest for over decade because it has to deal with growing Chinese naval power and more frequent crises with North Korea. One could say the problem was navy-wide but most intense in the 7th Fleet and not enough of the admirals were willing to speak up and admit to the politicians and voters what was going on and why it was not being addressed. One reason was that the politicians wanted admirals who would keep quiet and those admirals who spoke out got forced into retirement and replaced by younger officers willing to play by the new rules. This is not unique in American history or military history in general. But this occurrence is another aftereffect of the Cold War ending and attitudes changing with regard to responsibility and military readiness.
The immediate problem, in short, was that the navy has been getting smaller since the Cold War ended in 1991 and that process continued after 2001 because the increased defense spending went to the Army, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and marine operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The navy and air force had to get by on a lot less. For example, the number of ships in the navy went from 333 in 1998 to 277 in 2017. Yet the navy kept the same number of ships (about a hundred) deployed overseas despite there being 17 percent fewer ships. Worse the newer ships, and some of the older ones were experimenting with smaller crews (and more automation). This is still a work in progress but meanwhile, lots of 7th Fleet ships were operating at a wartime tempo. This was wearing down the crews as well as the ships.
The ships overseas are also kept busier even though crew sizes have been reduced as well and although the navy knew this was going on not a lot was done to deal with what was obviously a growing problem. For example in the two years before the accidents the number of warships in the 7th fleet not certified as ready for combat increased five-fold (to 37 percent). The reasons why were no secret either. Many sailors were working over 100 hours a week when at sea, often double the standard 70-81 hours a week. Ships were more frequently unable to go to sea because of deferred (caused by manpower shortages) maintenance. The most serious shortages were in training, which apparently contributed to the three serious accidents and many more events that could have gotten very ugly.
It’s an old naval tradition to punish (it used to be by hanging) an admiral if you wanted to get the attention, or just motivate, the others. This refers back to British Admiral John Byng, who was executed in 1757 for not trying hard enough to dislodge the French from the island of Minorca. This execution was later described as done to "encourage the others (admirals)." In fact, Byng died because of bad publicity surrounding the earlier execution of a junior officer for the same "offense," while senior officers got less lethal punishment. Byng was the victim of a leadership problem that keeps reoccurring.
Nevertheless, navies have always been rather harsher about inadequate leadership. It is an ancient naval tradition that someone must take responsibility and be punished when things go wrong. This attitude developed over the centuries because the seas are an unforgiving environment. Those put in charge of ships have absolute power and absolute responsibility. So, to this day, in most navies, the senior officers can quickly (or, in this case eventually) lose their jobs if things go wrong.
Admiral Byng’s demise was, historically, not all that unusual. In centuries past, many navy commanders have been executed for not doing all their boss expected of them. But 18th century Britain considered itself to be in a kinder and gentler age, thus the outcry after Byng was executed, instead of simply being dismissed (or exonerated, something his descendants still call for). Now, in the 21st century, the trend continues, as do the punishments.
Hanging went out of fashion by the 20th century but getting fired apparently has the same impact. The sailors and junior officers who take a more realistic attitude towards this bad leadership (and suffer the most from it) have been demanding more accountability for over a decade, and not staying in the navy long when senior leadership did not improve. That may change if the complacent and compliant admirals are replaced with competent and accountable ones. This was not just a navy problem, the army, air force and, to a lesser extent, the marines all suffered from it. Unlike combat which is loud, involves real bullets that focus attention and responsibility. In peacetime bureaucratic battles back home are often kept out of sight and boldness by military leaders is less common because the paper bullets are quiet and can kill a career quickly. The damage can be substantial as the 2017 7th Fleet collisions demonstrated. There is no easy fix for this because the military is, by design and necessity subordinate to the elected officials who often do a lot of damage with the best of intentions and little scrutiny from anyone outside the military.