Admiral to Lawmaker: Lots of Navy Ships Didn’t Have Collisions

Navy Adm. Philip Davidson testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on April 17, 2018.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Navy Adm. Philip Davidson testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on April 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The head of the combatant command where two ship collisions left 17 sailors dead defended the Navy's performance during a tense exchange on Capitol Hill.

Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers Tuesday that hundreds of other ships "weren't having collisions" in response to questions about new safety measures after a pair of Navy destroyers collided with other vessels in separate 2017 incidents. Seventeen sailors were killed in those accidents.

"These two collisions were a tragedy, there's no doubt about it," Davidson said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "And all of the senior leadership of the Navy feels an immense amount of accountability for that.

"... But the fact of the matter is that 280-odd other ships weren't having collisions," he added.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine Independent, fired back. "Isn't that the standard: No collisions?" he asked. "Airplanes are landing all over America and, just because they're not all crashing, doesn't mean they don't need a high level of maintenance. To tell me that isn't very convincing."

The exchange came after a damning two-part investigation by ProPublica into the lead-up to the collisions involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain. Both happened in the Indo-Pacific Command's area of responsibility. The Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship near Japan, and the McCain hit another vessel off the coast of Singapore.

According to the ProPublica report, top Navy leaders sounded the alarm about readiness problems in the Pacific several times, but their concerns weren't addressed.

Davidson, who didn't take the helm at U.S. Indo-Pacific command until about a year after the mishaps, said the idea that the Navy isn't transparent about its readiness challenges "is appalling."

King, who called the accidents "avoidable tragedies," acknowledged that blame doesn't fall fully on the Navy. Congress, he said, must also accept responsibility for a portion of the problems.

Across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration contributed to fleet readiness issues, King said. But, he added, the problems were preventable because there were multiple warnings that weren't acted upon.

"I want to be reassured that it is [now] being acted upon," he said. "... I would like to see specific responses from the Navy -- not promises and good feelings."

Navy leaders have made more than 100 recommendations to improve conditions -- such as sleep policies and training guidelines -- that contributed to the deadly collisions. The service stood up a special council to oversee implementation of those recommendations and, by last summer, almost two-thirds of the sweeping policy changes were in place.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran briefs congressional staffers quarterly on the status of those changes, Davidson said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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