CNO Takes Blame for Deadly Destroyer Collisions: 'I Own This'

In this file photo, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson testifies on Capitol Hill on Sept. 15, 2016, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Susan Walsh/AP
In this file photo, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson testifies on Capitol Hill on Sept. 15, 2016, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Susan Walsh/AP

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said Monday that a failure of command throughout the service was the main contributing factor in the deadly collisions of the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain, which cost the lives of 17 sailors.

"I own this problem," the service's top officer told lawmakers.

Richardson testified as part of a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on "recent incidents at sea," including the Fitzgerald's collision with a merchant ship off Japan on June 17 that resulted in the deaths of seven sailors, and the McCain's collision with a chemical tanker near Singapore on Aug. 21 that killed 10 sailors.

He said he had "no explanation," pending ongoing investigations, to provide the panel on how two fast and agile Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, equipped with the latest radar and guidance systems, were rammed amidships by slower and larger commercial ships.

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He listed budget constraints and a high operations tempo -- also cited by other services as impacting readiness -- but put the main emphasis on failures of leadership.

"What we do is inherently dangerous," Richardson said, but "at the core, this issue is about leadership, especially command."

"We have a problem in the Navy, and we're going to fix it," new Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer told the committee. He said the ongoing reviews will "highlight a way forward to renew a culture of safety."

Before the testimony began, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, introduced family members of several of the sailors killed aboard the destroyers.

He extended "deepest condolences to you all on behalf of this committee, and all Americans."

The USS McCain is named for the senator's father and grandfather, both of whom served during World War II.

Immediate Action Urged

McCain and several other senators on the panel expressed impatience with the Navy's deliberative investigations and reviews of the McCain and Fitzgerald tragedies, as well as other incidents in surface operations, and urged immediate corrective actions.

Spencer is overseeing a civilian-led Strategic Readiness Review that seeks to determine "root causes" for the service's failures, while Richardson has directed Adm. Phil Davidson, the U.S. Fleet Forces commander, to conduct a Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Fleet Incidents to develop "tactical" solutions.

Davidson's review will include the grounding of the guided-missile cruiser Antietam in Tokyo Bay in January and the collision of the guided-missile cruiser Lake Champlain with a South Korean fishing vessel in May.

Also testifying at the hearing was John H. Pendleton, director of Defense Force Structure and Readiness Issues for the Government Accountability Office.

Overworked Sailors

McCain and others focused on Pendleton's reports showing that sailors at sea routinely work 100-hour weeks and that many of them in the Western Pacific's 7th Fleet, including those on the McCain and Fitzgerald, lack time to renew their certifications because of the operations tempo.

In the 7th Fleet, "they squeezed in training when they could," Pendleton said.

"I will not deny that," Richardson said in commenting on Pendleton's testimony.

Richardson said "just about every ship" in the Navy "has some element of their warfare certification expired. Is it irresponsible? Yes, but we'll get this right. If that certification has meaning, we'll do the damn certification."

Pendleton's reports also showed that 37 percent of the training certifications for cruisers and destroyers based in Japan had expired as of June, a five-fold increase over the last two years.

"I don't need to tell you this is troubling and unacceptable," McCain said to Spencer and Richardson.

"These preventable incidents also come with a very real price tag," estimated at more than $600 million for repairs to the McCain and the Fitzgerald, the senator said.

'A Number of Small Errors'

While he had no immediate explanation for the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions, Richardson said, "These catastrophes result from a number of small errors."

The normal watch team on the two ships includes about 10 personnel, including four officers, two lookouts and a quartermaster, he said. They are supported by a team below decks in the Combat Information Center checking electronic displays.

In addition, the ship has redundancies for most systems, including a primary and a backup radar, and two rudders.

"How could all that break down so catastrophically? That's why we have to do a thorough investigation," Richardson said.

Accidents Across the Services

Several senators said that the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions are emblematic of accidents across the services attributable to an overall shortfall in readiness brought on by a lack of guaranteed funding for the military and the budget caps of the sequestration process.

Last week saw three fatal accidents at bases across the U.S.

In one, a special operations soldier was killed and several others injured in a firing range incident at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

In another, 15 U.S. Marines were injured -- several critically -- after their amphibious landing vehicle caught fire during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton, California.

Also last week, one service member was killed during a medical evacuation hoist training exercise at Fort Hood, Texas.

"Over the past three years, in total 185 men and women in uniform have been killed in non-combat accidents," McCain said. "During the same period, 44 service members were killed in combat.

"Bottom line is this: I want all of my colleagues to concentrate on what I'm about to say -- we are killing more of our own people in training than our enemies are in combat," he said.

On Monday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters, "We've got to find out why we've suddenly had this spate of incidents."

"I am not willing to say right now that there's a direct line between sequestration and what has happened," Mattis said, but "we are going to take a very close look at that."

Ops Tempo Takes a Toll

In her opening address Monday to the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson Wilson echoed Mattis' concerns that the pace of operations is having a toll on readiness.

"We have been doing too much, for too long, with too few, and that has to change," she said. "It is not fair for this nation to ask our commanders to keep saying, 'We got this,' right up to the point of failure, because we don't got this."

At the close of the Senate committee hearing Tuesday, McCain pleaded with Spencer and Richardson, even as they conduct their wide-ranging reviews, to take immediate action to relieve the burden for sailors faced with 100-hour work weeks.

"I appreciate what you're saying, I appreciate what you're doing" in bringing in civilians and "whoever the hell else it is" to review and study the incidents, "but I'd also like to see some immediate common sense actions taken," McCain said.

"If somebody's working 100 hours a week, over time they're going to make mistakes," he said. "Why not declare a halt to it right now, right now? They should not be working 100 hours a week."

"Who's looking out for them?" McCain asked.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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