The Fitzgerald Collision: In Search of the Onus
The June 17, 2017, collision of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and the container ship ACX Crystal is once again in the news, after the public-interest investigative journalism organization ProPublica published a long-form account of the accident by T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose, and Robert Faturechi. Replete with helpful diagrams and graphics, the article is a detailed description of this tragic story that relies heavily on interviews with crewmembers and Navy officials. For those new to the story or who had not previously taken time to understand the circumstances of the collision, the three journalists tell a persuasive tale of a tired, overworked crew; poorly trained and unqualified sailors; inoperative equipment; and a command structure in the Western Pacific that was deaf to the crew’s needs and solely focused on mission accomplishment. The article also effectively details acts of considerable heroism in keeping the ship from sinking.
To the uninitiated, it appears as though the ship was set up to fail, and that the tragic accident was bound to happen sooner or later. Because the tragedy was followed weeks later by another fatal collision involving a Japan-based destroyer, a narrative arose that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Navy in the Western Pacific, and this story adds considerably to that prevailing understanding.
The problem with this narrative is that it is incomplete, and it removes from positions of obvious responsibility and culpability the very people most responsible for the accident — the commanding officer and other officers standing watch when the accident occurred. The American people should understand that while there were clear and present systemic issues with how the Navy trained and maintained its Japan-based ships, the Fitzgerald tragedy was the result of profound professional negligence perpetrated by people who either should have known better or did know better and chose to act otherwise. In fairness, the ProPublica story reported numerous instances of these professional failures, but did so within the context of a far larger number of environmental contributing factors and without contextualizing how devastating these failures were to safe navigation.
Clearly, the environment in which the Fitzgerald operated was challenging. As both the Navy’s Comprehensive Review and the Strategic Readiness Review cited in the aftermath of the 2017 collisions — the other being the USS John S. McCain — the operational requirements on ships based in Japan dramatically increased in the years before the accidents, while the number of ships available to meet the requirements remained static. This led to numerous decisions to forego dedicated maintenance and training periods, and ships were forced to try and work training and maintenance around the grueling operational schedule. The comprehensive menu of ship-specific required certifications was routinely deviated from, and readiness standards slipped.
These systemic conditions applied to the Fitzgerald at the time of her collision, as the ProPublica story accurately portrays. Additionally, the material condition of the ship’s radars employed in its safe navigation appears to have been unsatisfactory. It is unclear from the ProPublica report how much of this was operator error and how much was degraded equipment, but it is safe to assume both existed.
But even after considering these potential contributions to the collision, the inescapable conclusion from an experienced reading of this report, the aforementioned reviews, and the recently leaked internal Navy investigation into the Fitzgerald collision, is that the collision resulted from a series of human errors of commission or omission by people on the ship trained in what was expected of them and who should have known better. This is not to say that the systemic problems of supply, demand, maintenance, training, and personnel raised in the course of the collision investigations were not critical. This is not to say that ships were not operating under conditions of extreme stress. This is not to say that there were not deep and abiding questions of fleet readiness even as the Navy moves to respond to increasing great power competition.
What must be said is that in the darkness one tragic June night, a young officer on the bridge ignored her commanding officer’s orders. What must be said is that the same young officer ignored the warnings of others on the bridge about imminent danger. What must be said is that the senior person awake at the time on the ship — the tactical action officer in the ship’s weapon and sensor control room — was paying virtually no attention to the ship’s activities and added no value to avoiding the collision. What must be said is that in the same control room, the officer in charge of monitoring the presence of other ships in the area and working with the bridge team to avoid them was derelict in his duties by not comparing the information available to him (electro/optical cameras, and automated information system) clearly indicating the presence of other vessels with the radars under his control that did not. What must be said is that when the officer of the deck made her way through the control room before assuming watch and saw that there were virtually no surface contacts being tracked on radar — only to proceed to the bridge and have numerous visual contacts on the horizon — it was her duty to reconcile these differences.
What must be said is that the commanding officer — asleep in his bed and not to be awakened until tragedy struck — was responsible for all of it. He was responsible for evaluating the risk of the ship making this transit at night through crowded waters for the first time under his command, with key officers on watch who had also never before made the transit at night. He was responsible for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the watch-teams he assigned, their ability to work together, and the presence of personality conflicts that could lead to ineffectiveness. He was responsible for — in the event that his own level of exhaustion rendered him ineffective — directing his second-in-command (the executive officer) to be on the bridge during this challenging passage. He was responsible for knowing the material condition of his ship, informing his superiors of its condition, reporting readiness degradations, and instituting proper controls to mitigate risk. He was responsible for the decision to change his own standing orders the night of the collision, in order to grant the watch teams more latitude without having to wake him. He was responsible for turning around what Navy investigators called a “culture of complacency,” a culture in which he participated for 18 months before assuming command (when he had been executive officer), and instead, through his own actions, contributed to it.
Assigning this level of blame to the commanding officer does not let the chain of command and “Big Navy” off the hook. Rather, it places responsibility where it properly lies. The chain of command and Big Navy cannot be onboard all the time and cannot be expected to create individual solutions to individual ship problems. Commanding officers are responsible for solving these problems. ProPublica has done an excellent job of describing the total set of issues that the Fitzgerald was facing with when it collided, but readers must be careful to remember the central role of the commanding officer in the safe and effective operation of Navy ships. Blurring the lines of responsibility between the commanding officer on scene and superior levels of command will weaken the Navy and diminish the bonds of trust that must exist between a captain and a crew, while diluting the capacity of those higher levels of command to fix those readiness issues for which they are responsible.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and the Deputy Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.