The U.S. Navy unveiled a damning report Wednesday on collisions between two Japan-based destroyers and commercial vessels in the western Pacific that left 17 crew dead this summer, calling the accidents “avoidable” and faulting leadership shortcomings and an erosion of sailors’ basic standards.
The Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer, collided with a container ship in the waters south of Tokyo Bay in June, killing seven sailors, while the USS John S. McCain, a destroyer also based at Yokosuka, smashed into an oil tanker as it approached Singapore just over two months later, leaving 10 of its crew dead.
The navy’s first official report into the causes of the collisions revealed that both occurred in the wake of failures by officers and sailors on the bridge and raises troubling questions about the basic abilities of the Yokosuka-based 7th Fleet and the navy’s surface fleet.
In its assessment of the Fitzgerald accident, the report said that the destroyer’s crew and leadership failed to plan for safety, adhere to sound navigation practices, execute basic watch standing practices and properly use available navigation tools. It also cited both the crew and leadership for failing to respond “deliberately and effectively” when faced with a crisis.
“Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the Commanding Officer,” the report said. “That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.”
The crew’s grueling schedule and resulting fatigue was also highlighted in the report as contributing to the accident.
“The command leadership allowed the schedule of events preceding the collision to fatigue the crew,” the report said, adding that the leadership had also “failed to assess the risks of fatigue and implement mitigation measures to ensure adequate crew rest.”
The section on the McCain collision concluded that “a loss of situational awareness” while responding to mistakes in operating the vessel’s steering and propulsion systems in a highly traversed area had led to the accident.
It also cited the crew’s failure to follow international maritime traffic rules that govern the maneuvering of vessels when the risk of collision is present, as well as the crew’s “insufficient proficiency and knowledge” of the ship’s steering and propulsion systems.
“Both of these accidents were preventable and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watch standers that contributed to the incidents. We must do better,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a statement.
“We are a Navy that learns from mistakes and the Navy is firmly committed to doing everything possible to prevent an accident like this from happening again,” he added.
The navy has sacked a number of its top officers — including the commander of the 7th Fleet — as a result of the collisions involving its warships in Asia.
Then-Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the three-star commander of the fleet, was removed in late August “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the navy said at the time.
The McCain collision was the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s fourth major accident this year. Several other incidents have also prompted questions about American military readiness and the training of its forces in the Asia-Pacific region, where some critics have said the U.S. Navy is stretched too thin.
In response to the crashes, the navy ordered a comprehensive review of surface fleet operations and incidents at sea that have occurred over the past decade, “with emphasis on [7th] Fleet operational employment to inform improvements Navy-wide,” it said in late August.