The Navy is reviewing its role in an at-sea accident that killed eight Marines and one sailor, marking the fourth investigation into what leaders have called a truly preventable tragedy.
Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the head of U.S. Third Fleet, was directed to launch a command investigation into the Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle accident that occurred off the coast of California last July. Officials announced the new probe Monday night, hours after Navy and Marine Corps leaders were called on to testify about safety before a congressional committee.
"We are committed to conducting a thorough investigation, to identify causes and to learn from them, and take action to reduce the chance of future tragedies," Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said.
The investigation started in mid-April, she said.
The investigation could lead to repercussions for Navy personnel. The Marine AAV sank hundreds of feet beneath the surface on its way back to the amphibious transport dock ship Somerset. The Marine Corps has fired a colonel and lieutenant colonel since the accident, and on Monday announced that a two-star general has been suspended from his duties as the service's inspector general. Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas said Monday that 11 Marines have been or will be held accountable for their roles in the accident.
The previous three investigations into the mishap have included a Marine Corps command investigation; a probe by the Naval Safety Center that won't be released publicly; and a separate Marine Corps probe into the formation of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and any factors that may have contributed to the tragedy. The accident was found to have been avoidable. A series of mechanical problems, leadership failures, and safety and training shortfalls played a role.
The ship was also moving away from the AAV's position at the time of the accident; there were no safety boats in the water; and the Navy gave no updates on sea-state conditions, the Marine Corps' investigation found -- factors that might've contributed to the disaster that killed nine.
"The Navy is committed to understanding ... how our actions may have contributed to this tragedy," Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander of Naval Surface Forces, told lawmakers on Monday.
Kitchener said his service fully supports the Marine Corps' findings and recommendations, but added that investigation didn't specifically "examine Navy actions on this fatal day."
"We are accountable as an organization and must fully address whether Navy action or inaction contributed to the incident," Kitchener said.
The Navy's investigation is expected to take about 30 days, Dimaapi said, and the team leading it will include Marine Corps personnel.
"The command investigation will address any factors involving U.S. Navy personnel that potentially contributed to the tragedy, as well as an assessment of the possible impact to waterborne AAV operations of factors such as sea state and number and type of safety boats used during the waterborne operations," Dimaapi added.
The Marine Corps' investigation into the fatal accident showed a series of flaws at every level of the chain of command leading up to and during the incident. Thomas on Monday called the accident "preventable in so many ways."
"We failed," Thomas, the Marine Corps' No. 2 general officer, said. "We failed these brave young men."
The safety pause on ship-based AAV operations remains in place since the accident, he added, and will not be lifted "until we are satisfied that all necessary policies, procedures and risk-mitigation measures are in place." All commanding officers and well-deck teams on ships from which AAVs depart will be required to review those new policies and lessons from last year's accident, Kitchener said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in April that he and Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger met to discuss the Corps' initial findings into the fatal accident.
"There are gaps in seams where there shouldn't be gaps in seams in Navy and Marine Corps operations at the tactical level," Gilday said. "These are combined operations that we've been doing for some time now, and to have separate requirements on the Marine Corps side and the Navy side just doesn't make sense."
Kitchener said he's working with Marine Corps leaders to address any inconsistencies in policies for shipborne operations, to include those on safety boats.
"We are committed as a Navy and Marine Corps team to not put sailors and Marines at risk while examining our integrated policies and procedures," he said.