Constant deployments, a shrinking number of ships and high demands on crews have frayed the U.S. Navy, according to naval experts and current and former Navy officers, leading to four major incidents at sea this year and the deaths of 17 sailors.
The collision of the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker on Aug 21 — which left 10 sailors dead — was the culmination of more than a decade of nonstop naval operations that has exhausted the service.
Government reports, congressional probes and internal concerns have all pointed to systemic problems related to long deployments, deferred maintenance and shortened training periods within the Navy’s surface fleet that seem to have coalesced in the Pacific, specifically at the Japan-based 7th Fleet.
Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer commander and deputy director of the Center of American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, said there’s no “silver bullet” for the Navy’s issues and that for the past 15 years, the surface fleet has been in decline.
“The biggest problem is that the Navy recognized this and started to make changes, but at the same time the operational requirements became more pressurized,” he said. “The Pacific fleet has really been pressurized in a way that has harmed the surface forces’ proficiency in very basic things.”
In January, the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, leading to the commander’s dismissal. In May, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat. And roughly a month later, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship in the approach to Tokyo Bay. Seven sailors died and the destroyer’s commanding and executive officers were relieved.
The combined death toll eclipses the number of battlefield casualties in Afghanistan this year, which stand at 11.
In a written message to his officers, Adm. Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, pointed out that the rash of incidents occurred during “the most basic of operations.”
“History has shown that continuous operations over time causes basic skills to atrophy and in some cases gives commands a false sense of their overall readiness,” he wrote after the McCain collision.
Following that accident, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered a 24-hour stand down and a fleetwide review of training and seamanship, including a separate probe evaluating Pacific operations.
The Antietam, McCain and Fitzgerald are all in the 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan, raising questions over whether there are particular problems in that command. The 7th Fleet is responsible for 48 million square miles in the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Navy said. Swift also dismissed its commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin.
The spate of accidents also comes amid the Pentagon’s shifting of forces to the Pacific, where it will permanently station 60 percent of its naval and combat airpower assets. The Trump administration is also considering plans to expand the Navy to 350 ships. There are currently 276 deployable ships on Navy rolls.
The Navy has been strained by fewer ships taking on more missions. A 2015 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found that deployed ships remained at a constant level of 100 between 1998 and 2014, even though the fleet shrank by about 20 percent.
An inflection point appears to have been the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ramped-up operations across the Middle East and North Africa. In 1998, about 60 percent of ships were at sea at any one time. That number peaked at 86 percent in 2009.
Pressure on the fleets decreased by 2015, yet the Navy still had three-quarters of operational ships constantly deployed as maintenance and fundamental skills such as navigation and ship-to-ship communication wilted, the report’s authors said.
The Navy’s missions in the Pacific to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as ramped up patrols and cruises to guard against North Korean attacks have utilized destroyers like the McCain and the Fitzgerald as centerpiece warships, said Ridzwan Rahmat, a defense analyst with IHS Jane’s and an expert on naval operations in Asia.
“This particular platform is being stretched in terms of capability and crew,” he said.
A dearth of ships is felt more sharply in the Pacific, where deployments are more frequent and strenuous than other seas, said Rob McFall, a former Navy officer who served as the operations officer for the Fitzgerald until 2014.
Typical deployments for stateside ships occur in predictable two-year cycles, with about six months underway and 18 months of maintenance, training and workups, McFall said.
The cycle is more unforgiving in the Pacific. Deployments vary on mission, but a common routine is three months out, six months in port as the mission to reassure regional allies balloons in importance, McFall said.
Time in a homeport is often overshadowed by nearby adversaries.
“For those six months you’re on a tether. You’re always on call, in range and operational,” he said.
Open source documents show the McCain spent about seven of the last twelve months deployed before the accident.
“That is a lot of time underway,” McFall said. “But not uncommon for that area.”
The McCain’s collision occurred in the Singapore Strait, a 10-mile wide waterway crisscrossed with a thicket of hulking commercial ships. It is one of the busiest waterways on the planet and exceptionally challenging to navigate. A collision occurred in 2003 between a Republic of Singapore vessel and a merchant ship near the site of the McCain’s mishap; the area is a bottleneck one former naval officer likened to the on-ramp of a highway.
Accidents in the Pacific appear more likely given the deployment tempo, retired Vice Adm. Peter H. Daly, former deputy commander and chief of staff of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said in an interview.
Daly, who is now chief executive of the U.S. Naval Institute, said a disruptive deployment cycle could make some commands susceptible to cutting corners in maintenance and training.
“Ships deploying into this environment from the West Coast and Hawaii are not having these particular incidents,” he said.
A number of former Navy officers have said the bridge is the first and last defense for catastrophic incidents. Three junior officers pull duty there, monitoring ship-to-ship communications, ordering course corrections and watching for other ships and obstacles at sea.
The officers must pass what is known as an officer-of-the-deck examination board, which assesses candidates on principles of seamanship and understanding of the international rules governing seafaring traffic.
A navigator acting as officer of the deck during the USS Antietam incident was not properly qualified to fill that role, according to investigative findings provided to The Washington Post.
The three junior officers share outsize responsibility to keep the ship afloat and its crew safe, standing watch for four to as many as nine hours a day on top of regularly assigned duties. The job’s demands can erode the senses of even the sharpest young officers. A former surface warfare officer with nearly 30 years of experience said four hours of sleep a day were common among watch officers at sea.
“That’s what underway life is,” the former officer said, who declined to be identified given his sensitive post-Navy career.
The grind has not been lost on the Navy, which has long understood exhaustion can spiral into fatal mistakes.
“Fatigue has measurable negative effects on readiness, effectiveness and safety,” Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Force Pacific, told the fleet last year.
The case of the Fitzgerald’s collision puzzled McFall, who said standing orders set by commanders provide guidance to alert or wake the captain if the ship is within the closest point of approach, the Navy’s term for the point at which two objects could collide.
About 3 nautical miles (3.5 standard miles) is common, McFall said, but high-traffic areas might prompt some captains to raise the bar for alerts. The Fitzgerald collision occurred in the early morning, flattening the captain’s quarters and knocking him unconscious.
“In all incidents and investigations, almost in every case it comes down to the competency of watch standers, how they were trained and who qualified them,” Daly said.