Home Editor's Pick The Real Reason the US Navy Keeps Hitting Merchant Vessels
The Real Reason the US Navy Keeps Hitting Merchant Vessels

The Real Reason the US Navy Keeps Hitting Merchant Vessels

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Words by Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InMilitary.com and Veteran, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Reach out to Wes on LinkedIn.

Editor’s note: Last week, we secured an interview with a recently retired U.S. Navy captain who spent 20 years at sea and 10 in the Pentagon, working on process improvement projects. He asked to remain anonymous due to a number of political considerations and a need for privacy. For the purposes of this interview, we will call him Captain F.

InMilitary: Thank you, sir, for sitting down with us and giving us your time. As you’re painfully aware, there have been a number of at-sea incidents lately, most notably the two separate collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain with merchant vessels. Sailors’ lives have been lost. There are conspiracy theories of Russian spoofing of GPS and other nonsense. Our most pressing question is: Why is this happening now and with such frequency?

Captain F: First, the big picture. The nation, like every nation, has to balance guns and butter. Just a fact of life. Limited resources and unlimited requirements, needs and wants. Congress and the executive branch must lead that discussion based on the threat and the capabilities of the required force to meet those threats.

After each war, although they do not term it as such (actually, they did after the collapse of the Berlin Wall), there is always a great deal of pressure to provide a “peace dividend” – or more precisely, to move funding from the military to social projects. I have been through two significant drawdowns in my service from 1974-2003.

IM: The first drawdown was after Vietnam?

Captain F: Yes, the first came after Vietnam when the Navy drew down from a high of about 900 ships – about 700 at the end of the war – down to under 500 ships. Additionally, the civilian leadership decided to shift from a conscription policy to an all-volunteer force.

On top of that, there was significant unrest in the country after the war, things like the civil rights movement and the country was divided politically. Impacts of that shift in mentality meant that we were dealing with a different breed of young men that were coming into the service.

It was mandated that we accept into the service a certain number of individuals who had a low aptitude for service, including those that were intellectually challenged, had drug use problems, and so forth. To a large extent, we became something of a social experiment.

IM: It doesn’t sound like a very effective or efficient military.

Captain F: There was a time in the ‘75-‘79 time frame when we literally had a CO stabbed by a crew member. Officers could not walk through the ships without some kind of arms or guards after hours.

The ships were deteriorating swiftly and the standards across the board were not being met. The largest conventional shipbuilding classes at the time were the Spruance Class Destroyers and the Ticonderoga Cruisers.

Ships were failing routine inspections, particularly with respect to the 1,200-pound steamships, which were difficult to maintain and had been severely abused during the war. By the time the ‘80 election arrived, I had served two tours – one on USS John S. McCain (DDG-36), which was one of those ships that was failing.

It took an enormous amount of work by the officers, particularly the COs and XOs, to get us deployed. I left that ship and helped to commission the USS Comte De Grasse (DD 974) in 1978. The change was astounding to me. While we worked hard, we also had a first-rate crew and wardroom personnel who were experienced. That was my first inkling of the underlying issues.

IM: So the post-Vietnam drawdown had an impact that lasted for years.

Captain F: Correct. Into the ‘79-‘80 time frame, ships continued to fail. Oilers could not get underway because they did not have enough boiler techs to steam safely. There was a rise in collisions and groundings.

Two things happened from my perspective that changed things around. One, we got a CNO (in ‘76, I think it was), who basically came in and said we are going to a zero-defect mentality. He instituted tougher standards, mandatory random drug testing, and held officers and CPOs accountable. We finally had leadership at the top.

The second thing that happened was that Ronald Reagan was elected president and boldly said we were going to create a 600-ship navy because that was what the threat required. [They were] the two sides of the coin that allowed us to dig out – good leadership and more money.

Think about the Navy we took to war 10 years after Reagan was elected; it performed well. Additionally, think about the things that the Navy was able to do – drug operations, Grenada, Panama, Libya, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf tanker wars, as well as all of the normal operations. This work culminated with Desert Storm and expelling Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

IM: You mentioned two big drawdowns. When was the second?

Captain F: The second drawdown came after the Berlin Wall fell. President Clinton essentially sold everyone on the idea that he could reap a peace dividend in the ‘90s.

We decommissioned a whole host of ships. Every ship I ever served on was gone by 2005. Spruance cans were built to last 40 to 50 years in a modular fashion and had the most up-to-date weapons systems on board, including the SQQ –89 ASW suite and the Tomahawk missile systems in vertical launch mode.

The Aegis cruisers were built on essentially the same hull and were meant to last about 40 years as well. Most of them are now gone.

John S. McCain (DDG-36) was decommissioned in 1978 and the new one was commissioned after the turn of the century. The FFG-7s, which were the smaller frigates needed to serve for escort duty, should have lasted well into the 21st century.

The ‘90s saw the same traits as the late ‘70s and early ‘80s; the difference being that the major shipbuilding programs to replace the ships being decommissioned were pushed to the right. DDGs started delivering with speed in about 1990. They were to be followed by DDX and the LCS [Littoral Combat Ships]. Both were meant to be minimally manned units with high technology and built on a modular frame that could be adapted to circumstances.

IM: We’ve heard of the “minimally-manned” theory, allowing technology to do the heavy lifting.

Captain F: DDX was supposedly going to start delivering in 2012 and the LCS was supposed to start delivering in about 2008. Neither happened – both programs were troubled.

So now we had a situation where you had decommissioned a large portion of the fleet. We are down close to 255 ships or so the last I looked, and we are still heading downward. On top of that, you were asking those ships we had to do jobs previously done by larger, better-armed and better-manned vessels.

It did not take me long after I took command of [REDACTED]… to realize that I was supposedly training the chiefs and first-class petty officers of the new ships and that I would soon be expected to train the lower rank 2nd class petty officers and below. In other words, we should have been taking into account the fact that each of those men was going to have to have the knowledge, skills and abilities of about six people in order to do their jobs. The DDX was originally meant to be manned by 75 people versus the 250 to 350 men found on either the DDG51s, Spruance cans or Tico cruisers.

The LCS was even worse. They were expected to come into the fleet with a minimally manned ship of under 50.

IM: There was a large drawdown in the ‘90s. Many military bases closed. This continued until 2000?

Captain F: After all that was going on in the ‘90s, we also had a mandate to transform the Navy; build a better tooth-to-tail ratio and cut the personnel budgets. Think about it: if you can’t cut capital infrastructure such as ships, then the only place to look is manning.

From my perspective in the training world, that meant we had to figure out how to cut the costs of training by doing it smarter and with technology. Up until then, all Navy schools delivered training the same way – blue smock, pointer and blackboards.

The personnel command was meant to transform the way we assigned people to ships, considering the skills they had, to ensure that the right folks were assigned. That is how and why Task Force Excel came into being in 2000. Donald Rumsfeld came in as Secretary of Defense and instituted large transformation efforts.

From the Navy perspective, the CNO was Vern Clark and he fully supported the transformation efforts. We did a lot of good work and instituted a lot of change.

But as in all organizations, resistance to change can be powerful. In my opinion, to successfully get anything established, you should have at least seven years. We had that barely before the CNO retired, and a new one took his place and the resistance built back up.

IM: So it’s a leadership issue?

Captain F: What gave out was leadership. The admirals did not put their careers on the line and object about anything. They rolled over to save themselves. That is the big picture. From a more localized perspective, the direct in-line people, COs, XOs and MCPOs, also rolled over.

There is no way on my ships that would have happened. We always had direct leadership. Leadership that was there, present and capable. I am willing to bet that those ships involved in incidents with merchants had all their sexual orientation, transgender training, and environmental training all completed at the expense of the safety and operational training.

If you put the emphasis on social issues, you get a social force. If you put it on operational issues, you get an operational force.

The mistakes I see in the latest incidents – I have read the actual reports on the Fitzgerald – were so simple and basic it takes your breath away. Technology can never replace humans in totality, especially when the law of gross tonnage applies.

As CO, I would have been on the bridge in both those incidents. We would have had highly qualified officers and petty officers on watch.

So if you can follow my logic here is what I conclude. There was a confluence of leadership failures:

First, there was a failure by the nation and particularly the executive branch of the government to recognize that by using the armed forces as a social change agent, as well as denying them the tools (forces) to do the job, will always cause the forces to break. We are at the breaking point and it shows.

Second, there was a failure in naval leadership writ large from the time we tried to transform the forces to meet the threat to today. Not enough senior leadership was stepping forward, ready to sacrifice themselves, so our sailors would not be.

In addition, it has been obvious to me that SECNAV Mabus was able to transform naval leadership in a way to conform to his world view; [that he] fired or relieved those who did not conform to his views and promoted those that did. I think the top leadership is pretty rotten, although I am sure there is “good wood” in there somewhere.

Third, the direct chain of command must have been weak – 7th Fleet down through the commodores of the squadrons – or these ships would not be having these problems. Either the standards are too low or they are worrying about other things. I suspect they are worrying about other things, such as the social experimentation going on and how they get through so they can continue to survive themselves.

Fourth, the ship climate and command structures were obviously out of whack. COs don’t get to sleep in in heavy shipping waters, [that’s] just a fact.

Fifth, while it might be convenient or popular to string some kind of conspiracy theory, the mistakes made were all simple things: basic ship handling, navigation and seamanship stuff. Destroyers do not get run down by merchants; they are faster and much more maneuverable. No, they were not hacked; they were not run down on purpose. They just were asleep at the wheel.

Sixth, I am surprised and will continue to be surprised if some of these folks in leadership positions are not court-martialed. There is a good case for manslaughter in my mind.

And lastly, we need to truly transform the services, not from a social viewpoint but rather from a warfighting viewpoint. Capabilities are available for us to reduce crew manning and use distributed systems, but like anything [else], we have to be serious about doing it. Perhaps that will be the one good thing coming out of all of this.

The last thing I will say is that the Navy has a very difficult issue transforming. Since it is capital-heavy, it needs to do more to bring down shipbuilding costs, while at the same time work assiduously to transform our personnel into distributed nodes with authority, that is transforming the personnel force. That is a tall order and it takes people not only with leadership skills but also imagination and vision, which is a commodity in short supply.

When I was the ACOS at OPTEVFOR, I was in charge of the testing for the entire surface Navy, so I had Tomahawks, harpoons, surface-to-air missiles, ASW, AAW and SW, as well as all of the platform-specific stuff. Interestingly, I also had the drone programs. I had them because the Air ACOS and company could not be trusted not to kill the program, because they viewed it as a threat to manned air vehicles and rightfully so.

Our Navy should now be something like I described back in 2000 – lots of drones, surface, subsurface and air, being controlled by nodes which take the info back quickly to centralized areas for decisions on action. The weapons can be delivered by drones as well.

Why we are still dropping iron bombs on top of targets before they are softened up is beyond me. Iron bombs have their place, and so do manned aircraft, but they are truly expensive to lose. We need to do better. We can do it better.

IM: Again, thank you for your time and your insight. Most importantly, thank you for your years of dedicated service.

Captain F: My pleasure.