Senators Tell Navy to 'Do Better' Preventing Deadly Ship Collisions

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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka, Japan, on June 17, 2017, following a collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo/Peter Burghart)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka, Japan, on June 17, 2017, following a collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo/Peter Burghart)

Lawmakers today questioned the U.S. Navy's top leadership Wednesday on what the service is doing to prevent future accidents such as the separate collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, which together resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.

At a joint Senate Armed Service Committee hearing of the subcommittees on Seapower and Readiness and Management Support, several senators expressed concern over the declining surface ship readiness that resulted in the 2017 USS Fitzgerald accident and the USS John S. McCain collision that same summer.

"In the aftermath of the tragic USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collisions in which 17 sailors lost their lives, our commanders and sailors called for meaningful reform," said Seapower Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.

The Navy and Government Accountability Office reviews of the accidents cited "overextended and undermanned ships, overworked crews, a decline in naval mastery and confusing chains of commands as contributing factors to the Navy's readiness problems," Wicker added.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska -- chairman of the Readiness and Management Support subcommittee -- also commented on the trend in accidents within the Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific region.

"I don't want to go down the whole list but we know what they are -- the USS McCain ... the collisions of our ships at sea resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors," said Sullivan, who also listed mentioned a spate of aviation accidents, including the midair collision on Dec. 6 between a Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet and a KC-130 Hercules tanker.

"We have to do better; we must do better," Sullivan said.

Last year, the Navy's training requirements were being "waivered at an alarming rate," and a series of Navy studies "concluded that this lack of training had contributed to the deadly collisions," John Pendleton, the director the GAO's Defense Capabilities and Management office, told lawmakers.

Since then, the Navy made progress in making training a higher priority to make sure crews are trained before they deploy, Pendleton added.

"However, this is keeping the sailors very busy," Pendleton said, describing a recent trip he made to Japan. "We talked to 10 groups of sailors on two ships in Japan, and they told us ... 'they are still working very hard, sometimes 100 hours a week or more.' I am concerned that this still reveals an underlying problem facing the Navy that it simply is not yet putting enough sailors on the ships to cover the workload."

The Navy is working on new manning requirements for ships at sea and in port, Pendleton added.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said that one of the steps the Navy discussed was "ensuring that ship or squadron commanders can highlight their concerns when higher headquarters may try to deploy ships that are not trained and ready."

"Can you point to any example of a ship not deploying after being assigned to deploy when training or readiness were not up to standards?" Hirono asked.

Adm. William Moran, vice chief of naval operations, said there have been several examples.

"They come both ways -- from senior officers in the chain of command who observe a ship not being ready to either go to an exercise, deploy or get underway, and where [crews] themselves have come forward through their chain of command and say they need additional time to train and be certified," Moran said.

Hirono said she thought it was an important practice, adding "we can't continue to have all these waivers for the readiness of these ships when they deploy."

Hirono also expressed concern over corrosion, a problem that the Marine Corps recently revealed was the cause of crash of a 2017 KC-130 in Mississippi.

"The investigation found that the aircraft crashed because a corroded propeller blade came off during flight, killing all 16 people aboard," Hirono said. She then asked Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer to explain what the Navy had done about the problem.

Spencer conceded that the Navy was not doing the appropriate preventative maintenance in the right way.

"That has been corrected," Spencer said. "We work in a maritime environment -- highly corrosive. This is something that we are actually enhancing our efforts at, because if you could see when we start peeling back the onion on our maintenance issues, corrosion ends up being one of the biggest manpower consumers."

Spencer added that "with the chemistry that is out there today, we have the ability to really address this."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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