Murphy's Law: We Are Too Important To Be Responsible

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July 30, 2013: A few weeks after announcing that the officers of a U.S. Navy ship (USS Guardian) were responsible for the loss of a ship after it hit a reef earlier this year, it was revealed that one of the charts (maps) issued to the ship for the area where it ran aground was in error. On the defective chart the reef the ship hit was actually some 15 kilometers away from where shown. The government agency responsible for military maps (the NGA, or National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) admitted that it had not updated that chart. Still, the navy holds the ships’ officers responsible, as there was more than one chart (for the area of the reef) on board and some of them were correct.

This is not the first time this has happened. Eight years ago the U.S. Navy investigation of the submarine USS San Francisco’s collision with an uncharted undersea mountain revealed the basic cause and then blamed the victim. The sea mount the San Francisco hit had been spotted by survey satellites in 1999 and 2004, but the intelligence agency responsible, the NGA, said it didn’t have the money to update naval charts. Neither did the navy, or anyone else. Someone made a decision to let American submarines continue moving around amidst all manner of uncharted hazards but that angle was not pursued by the navy investigation. Instead, the sailors on duty when the San Francisco hit the sea mount were punished for not having taken more frequent depth soundings (which would have indicated they might be approaching an obstacle), or consulting another map (than the one they originally used) that showed a possible sea mount five kilometers from where they actually collided with one.

Whatever happened to responsibility at the top? The U.S. has been using expensive survey satellites to map the oceans for over a decade. What’s the point of spending all that money if you don’t get vital information to the people in the submarines and ships who can use it? But this is not a unique situation. The troops have been complaining, with increasing frequency and anger, that the $50 billion a year spent on intelligence is not getting much to the end user. After the 1991 Gulf War, there were generals saying this in blunt testimony before Congress. After September 11, 2001, the same complaints were made. Same thing after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And the complaints continue to come in. Blaming the victims is pretty lame and disrespectful of the hardest working and diligent sailors in the U.S. Navy. Will anything change? According to the navy investigation of the USS San Francisco and USS Guardian accidents, it’s unlikely. The intelligence community has enormous power to spend their billions but no responsibility for the results.

The U.S. Navy investigation of the USS Guardian running onto a reef in the Western Pacific last January 17th concluded that the cause was poor leadership by the officers of the 1,300 ton Avenger class mine sweeper. The USS Guardian ran aground on Tubbataha Reef off the southern Philippines (the Sulu Sea) and was so firmly stuck that it had to be dismantled and removed in pieces. The USS San Francisco was repaired and returned to service four years after the collision.

The investigation found that the USS Guardian was using outdated maps and the officers had not ensured that only up-to-date ones were used. The officers were also held responsible for not ensuring that lookouts were used properly while moving through shallow waters notorious for the ease with which a ship can run aground. These groundings are quite frequent in these waters, although in most cases they happen at low tide and high tide allows the stuck ship to get off and limp away to a port for repairs. The Philippines is surrounded by shallow waters that are full of reefs and shoals that are just below the surface. The mine sweeper is one of four Avenger class ships stationed in Japan and one of 14 in the U.S. Navy. The Avenger class ships have a crew of 79, and the captain and four other officers of the USS Guardian crew were removed from their jobs in April and may now face punishment for losing the ship. 

 


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