The U.S. Navy on Tuesday fired the USS John S. McCain’s top two officers, calling the warship’s deadly August collision with an oil tanker “preventable.”
Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, the McCain’s commander, and Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez, its executive officer, were relieved of their duties and reassigned, Navy officials announced in a statement. Both were fired because of a lack of confidence, officials said.
The McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, collided with the merchant vessel Alnic MC on Aug. 21 near Singapore. Ten American sailors died and five others were injured.
“While the investigation is ongoing, it is evident the collision was preventable, the commanding officer exercised poor judgment, and the executive officer exercised poor leadership of the ship’s training program,” officials said in the Navy’s announcement.
While other McCain sailors may bear some responsibility for the accident, the Navy, historically, assigns the most severe penalties to the top officers involved, said Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer commander and now deputy director of the Center of American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Captains are in a unique position to know what the ship’s strengths and weaknesses are. There is no other leadership position in the military quite like captain of a ship or a submarine,” McGrath told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
When the Navy removes officers from command, as it did with the relief of Sanchez and Sanchez, it sends “unequivocal messages” to other ship captains and senior officers to tighten their leadership, McGrath said, adding “Be up to the task or we will relieve you.”
The McCain collision is among a series of mishaps, including three collisions and a grounding, that have exposed the Navy’s struggle to address widespread leadership shortcomings and an erosion of training standards. Two months prior, the USS Fitzgerald, also a guided-missile destroyer, collided with a container ship in Tokyo Bay.
That accident left seven U.S. sailors dead. To date, the Navy has fired at least eight commanders following the four accidents this year, including the 7th Fleet commander, a three-star admiral who oversaw three of those ships.
In September, Navy leaders shared with Congress several unsettling facts about the service’s dangerous deployment pace and the role physical exhaustion — some sailors routinely endure 100-hour workweeks, they said — may have played in the two deadly collisions.
Worldwide, demand for Navy assets has soared since the United States went to war in 2001, but its number of ships has been cut by 20 percent since then, officials have said. Faced with persistent threats from North Korea and China’s expansionist ambitions, U.S. commanders have leaned on the Navy to maintain a steady, robust presence in the Western Pacific in particular.
The McCain and the Fitzgerald both belong to the Navy’s 7th Fleet, which is headquartered in Japan, and what befell their crews brings into stark focus how more missions in this region have left the Navy spread thin, hobbled by too few ships and worn-out, undertrained crews.
Hoping to collect recommendations for solving its training and leadership problems, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered a service-wide stand-down after the two deadly collisions.
“When I hear about problems like persistent lack of sleep, consistently long work hours in port, problems in basic watchstanding, and more, it’s clear to me that much of the fix is with our junior leaders,” Richardson said in a message distributed throughout the fleet last week, an apparent refinement over his statements last month before Congress, when the four-star admiral said the Navy’s more senior commanding officers were responsible for mandating change.
Junior leaders “can control so much if we give them clear guidance, responsibility, authority and accountability, and allow them to own their situations,” the message says, noting other concerns among personnel, such as added collateral duties that strain junior leaders’ ability to focus on personal and professional development.