Navy Relieves Two Senior Officers Over USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain Collisions

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Late last month, the USS John McCain was rammed by a supertanker. Ten sailors died in the collision. What made this so significant was this was twice in just a little over 60 days that advanced Aegis-equipped US destroyers had been rammed by commercial ships, the other being the USS Fitzgerald. Seventeen sailors died in the collisions, and, as war looms with Korea, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, the organization responsible for the training and support of the eight destroyers assigned to the Seventh Fleet, had two ships put out of action for at least a year each. And the US Navy went to an “operational pause” to get its wits about itself.

I commented at the time that what we were seeing in the Pacific Fleet called into question the general readiness of the fleet. Both collisions occurred in fairly crowded shipping lanes, in both cases the commercial vessel seemed to be displaying all lights and using the sea-going version of a transponder. In neither case was there inclement weather. When you have incidents like this careers are ended. The captain of the Fitzgerald was relieved. Significantly, the senior chief petty officer on the ship was also relieved which indicates there was some major breakdown of training and discipline.

Only a couple of days after the McCain’s collision, the Navy announced it was relieving the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. As I posted:

Time will tell if this was an actual realization that something was really wrong or eyewash to give the illusion of concern. Aucoin was scheduled to retire next month and Sawyer had already been identified as his replacement. So this is hardly a shake-up of the chain of command. The career of the commander of the Fitzgerald is over. The career of the commander of the McCainonly exists until the formal decision is made to relieve him, but he, too, is as goner. The commander of 7th Fleet is gone. If the Navy is serious the commander of Destroyer Squadron 15 needs to hit the bricks. It makes no sense at all to relieve two destroyer commanders and the fleet commander and leave the guy most directly responsible for the discipline in both McCain and Fitzgerald in his position.

In a sign that there are significant command and readiness issues in the Seventh Fleet, the US Navy relieved two senior officers. One of them is no surprise but one is.

The Navy relieved two more commanders in 7th Fleet on Monday amid fallout from two deadly collisions involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain.

Task Force 70 commander Rear Adm. Charles Williams and Destroyer Squadron 15 commander Capt. Jeffrey Bennett were both relieved of command by 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer “due to a loss of confidence in their ability to command,” the Navy announced in a Monday statement.

As both the CTF 70 and Carrier Strike Group 5 commander, Williams had tactical control of 7th Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers, as well as Carrier Air Wing 5 and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

I was sort of surprised that DESRON 15’s commander wasn’t carrying Aucoin’s briefcase as he left the area. He lost a quarter of his squadron in preventable incidents and without a shot being fired. Were I going to point a very non-squid finger at the source of the problem, it seems like the human lookouts that are posted are simply relying upon technology rather than the Mark-1 eyeball to do the job. This is a very basic failing of training and discipline.

I’m a lot more surprised that the tactical, that is, task force, commander took the hit. So there is a story here that is not being fully told. And a third senior officer asked to retire early:

Not directly related to the accountability actions, the head of U.S. Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Tom Rowden put in a request last week to retire about two months early, several Navy officials confirmed USNI News.

The sources told USNI News that Rowden told Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson he wanted to step aside to allow for new leadership to guide the surface forces. Rowden’s exit is not immediate and he will remain in the position until a suitable replacement is found.

Unlike the relief of Aucoin, who was a month or so away from retiring, these two men have been in position for only about a year and are in high-profile assignments.

The reliefs come as senior Navy officials are reviewing a fleet known throughout the Navy for its grueling operations tempo in the Asia-Pacific – a workload that reports say came at the expense of training and other critical needs.

A Government Accountability Office study found more than one-third of needed warfare certifications for Japan-based cruiser and destroyer crews had expired, according to congressional testimony Sept. 7. The agency had first reported on this concern in May 2015.

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift has vowed to investigate manning, maintenance and cultural norms within the fleet to prevent further incidents.

“History has shown that continuous operations over time causes basic skills to atrophy and in some cases gives commands a false sense of their overall readiness,” Swift said in a statement following the McCain accident.

Indeed, this can be the case. Forward deployed units often suffer when it comes to documenting training and, if allowed, as Admiral Scott said, some basic skills can atrophy. And lack of documented certification does not necessarily mean anything more than a lack of paperwork. On the other hand, being deployed is often an excuse used for not doing the basic day-to-day things necessary to accomplish the mission. Here the lack of basic watch-standing skills seems to be a major cause. As a platoon leader and company commander, the two toughest battles I had to fight were “we’ve always done it this way,” and the “he’s a good field soldier” syndrome. The second part was usually invoked when you had a sh**bag who was a damned good soldier in the field. The fact is, we all do good those things we like to do. And while the problems may have preceded the tenure of the two men who were relieved, that doesn’t excuse the fact that problems continued on their watch. In the words of George Patton:

There is only one sort of discipline – PERFECT DISCIPLINE. Men cannot have good battle discipline and poor administrative discipline.

If the ships in the Seventh Fleet can’t travel at night without being a navigation hazard, they can’t be relied upon to fight. This is the fault of leaders. Sailors, like soldiers, will do what is expected of them. It is the job of leaders to set those expectations high.