32 The Trou­bled US Sev­enth Fleet

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Sam Bate­man

the us re­tains naval hard­ware su­pe­ri­or­ity on the seas, but the navy must ur­gently learn from re­cent ac­ci­dents and mishaps.

A star­tling num­ber of ac­ci­dents be­fell the Pa­cific-based US Sev­enth Fleet in 2017. The in­ci­dents ranged from run­ning aground to col­li­sions and other in­ci­dents that cost lives. But these are not iso­lated oc­cur­rences, and they speak to a trou­bling pat­tern within the US Navy it­self, ar­gues Sam Bate­man. While the US re­tains naval hard­ware su­pe­ri­or­ity on the seas, the Navy must look deep into it­self for the causes of re­cent mis­cues be­fore it is too late.

THE US SEV­ENTH FLEET has had its share of in­ci­dents in re­cent years, both deadly ac­ci­dents and cor­rup­tion-re­lated trou­bles. Then in 2017, there were five ma­jor ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing its sur­face ships. Another two se­ri­ous ac­ci­dents in­volved air­craft and loss of life. On Jan. 31, 2017, the USS An­ti­etam, a guided-mis­sile cruiser, suf­fered se­vere un­der­wa­ter dam­age af­ter run­ning aground while an­chor­ing in Tokyo Bay. On May 9, another guided-mis­sile cruiser, the USS Lake Cham­plain, col­lided with a South Korean fish­ing boat near the Korean Penin­sula. On June 17, a col­li­sion be­tween the USS Fitzger­ald, a guided-mis­sile de­stroyer, and a mer­chant ship off the coast of Hon­shu, Ja­pan, claimed the lives of seven Amer­i­can sailors and re­sulted in se­ri­ous dam­age to the Fitzger­ald. On Aug. 21, the USS John S Mccain, another guided-mis­sile de­stroyer, col­lided with an oil tanker in the crowded ship­ping lanes off Sin­ga­pore, leav­ing 10 Amer­i­can sailors dead, five more in­jured, and the ship heav­ily dam­aged. In a less-se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent on Nov. 18, the de­stroyer USS Ben­fold was hit by a Ja­panese tug off the coast of Ja­pan.

The trou­bles of the Sev­enth Fleet are not limited to op­er­a­tional ac­ci­dents. The fleet was the sub­ject in re­cent years of the worst cor­rup­tion scan­dal ever faced by the US Navy. This is the so-called Fat Leonard Af­fair: an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ship-sup­port con­trac­tor Glenn De­fense Ma­rine Asia (GDMA), a firm run by Leonard Glenn Fran­cis, a Malaysian na­tional known as “Fat Leonard.”

Fran­cis is al­leged to have pro­vided thou­sands of dol­lars in cash, travel ex­penses, lux­ury items and pros­ti­tutes to a large num­ber of uni­formed of­fi­cers of the Sev­enth Fleet. In re­turn, they pro­vided him with clas­si­fied ma­te­rial about the move­ments of ships and sub­marines, con­fi­den­tial con­tract­ing in­for­ma­tion and in­for­ma­tion about ac­tive law-en­force­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tions. The Wash­ing­ton Post called the scan­dal “per­haps the worst na­tional-se­cu­rity breach of its kind to hit the Navy since the end of the Cold War.”

More than 30 peo­ple have now been crim­i­nally charged in con­nec­tion with the scan­dal. Fran­cis re­mains in an Amer­i­can jail await­ing trial, while one ad­mi­ral, sev­eral cap­tains and com­man­ders, and some more ju­nior of­fi­cers from the Sev­enth Fleet, al­ready have been sen­tenced to prison terms. Ad­di­tion­ally, six ad­mi­rals have been dis­ci­plined or ad­mon­ished by the Navy.

Not the First Time

These in­ci­dents are all the more trou­bling be­cause the Sev­enth Fleet is one of the ma­jor ge­o­graph­i­cally based com­mands of the US Navy. Based in Yoko­suka, Ja­pan, with some units else­where in Ja­pan and South Korea, it is the largest of the for­ward-de­ployed US fleets and has a huge ge­o­graph­i­cal area of re­spon­si­bil­ity stretch­ing from the In­dian sub-con­ti­nent to the mid-pa­cific. Along with the Third Fleet, which is re­spon­si­ble for the Eastern half of the Pa­cific, it is part of the US Pa­cific Fleet un­der the US Pa­cific Com­mand.

While other ma­jor US mil­i­tary com­mands are largely ori­ented to the Army and/or Air Force, the Pa­cific Com­mand is very naval in na­ture.

The Sev­enth Fleet com­prises roughly 60 to 70 ships, 300 air­craft and 40,000 Navy and Ma­rine Corps per­son­nel. Its prin­ci­pal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are to pro­vide joint com­mand in mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and op­er­a­tional com­mand of all naval forces in the In­dopa­cific re­gion, in par­tic­u­lar in de­fense of the Korean Penin­sula or in re­sponse to as­sertive ac­tions by China.

A re­cent book by Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Michael Fabey (Crash­back, Scribner, 2017) paints a wor­ry­ing pic­ture of the Sev­enth Fleet. He hangs much of his story on an in­ci­dent in De­cem­ber 2013 when the guided-mis­sile cruiser USS Cow­pens was mon­i­tor­ing the op­er­a­tions of the Chi­nese air­craft car­rier Liaon­ing in the South China Sea, but was forced to back off by the ha­rass­ment ac­tiv­i­ties of ves­sels es­cort­ing the car­rier.

Fabey sees this as an ex­am­ple of Amer­i­can weak­ness, but in do­ing so, he de­scribes a de­plorable sit­u­a­tion on the USS Cow­pens. In his words, the cap­tain had “a trou­bled ship, with a strug­gling crew … sail­ing alone into dan­ger­ous wa­ters, with un­cer­tain or­ders, for a ren­dezvous with a proud and un­pre­dictable ad­ver­sary.” But he is also of­ten sick in his cabin, leav­ing “an in­ex­pe­ri­enced of­fi­cer on the bridge giv­ing or­ders to other in­ex­pe­ri­enced of­fi­cers.” The cap­tain had ear­lier sacked the ship’s Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer (XO) and ap­pointed in­stead the chief engi­neer­ing of­fi­cer, a 33-year-old fe­male lieu­tenant­com­man­der, as the tem­po­rary XO. How­ever, she had only been in the Navy for 11 years, and that pe­riod in­cluded a lengthy ex­change post­ing in the Royal Aus­tralian Navy at a tac­ti­cal train­ing school. Then it was later re­vealed that the cap­tain and his act­ing XO were in what ap­peared to be a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. It was an amaz­ing fail­ure of com­mand that this sit­u­a­tion was al­lowed to de­velop with­out some re­me­dial ac­tion be­ing taken.

The US Navy has had no short­age of se­ri­ous ground­ings and col­li­sions in re­cent years. In Fe­bru­ary 2009, the guided-mis­sile cruiser USS Port Royal ran aground on a reef off Oahu, caus­ing se­ri­ous dam­age to both the ship and the reef. In Au­gust 2012, the guided-mis­sile de­stroyer USS Porter was se­verely dam­aged af­ter a col­li­sion with a large tanker in the Straits of Hor­muz. In Jan­uary 2013, the minecoun­ter­mea­sures ves­sel USS Guardian was wrecked in the Philip­pines. In Fe­bru­ary 2014, the frigate USS Tay­lor ran aground while en­ter­ing port in Turkey. Sloppy nav­i­ga­tion and sea­man­ship were a fea­ture of all these ac­ci­dents, which sug­gests that all is not well with these skills in the US Navy.

Deeper Trou­bles

The dis­mal record of Sev­enth Fleet ac­ci­dents in 2017 has led to much ac­tiv­ity to re­dress the sit­u­a­tion. The Com­man­der of the Sev­enth Fleet was made a scape­goat and sacked, a move that led to other se­nior of­fi­cers in the chain of com­mand be­ing re­moved from their po­si­tions due to a loss of con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to com­mand. In ad­di­tion, the cap­tains of the Mccain and Fitzger­ald are now fac­ing crim­i­nal man­slaugh­ter charges.

The com­pre­hen­sive re­view of the Mccain and Fitzger­ald in­ci­dents made the case that as ad­di­tional bur­dens were placed on the Sev­enth Fleet, its busiest ships started la­bor­ing un­der a cul­ture of ac­cept­ing greater risk and cut­ting corners to keep ships un­der way that might not have been ready. A lead­ing cause of the ac­ci­dents was claimed to lie in over­worked ships and over­worked crews. Thus, part of the so­lu­tion was seen to be a bud­getary one — give us more ships and more per­son­nel. This, how­ever, ob­scures deeper cul­tural is­sues.

There must be a nag­ging thought that the trou­bles of the Sev­enth Fleet may not be unique but are symp­to­matic of prob­lems through­out the US Navy. They have only come to light re­cently be­cause the Sev­enth Fleet op­er­ates un­der a higher level of op­er­a­tional pres­sure, in­clud­ing in ar­eas of con­gested ship­ping traf­fic.

The Navy has three main op­er­a­tional schools — sub­mariners, avi­a­tors and sur­face war­fare of­fi­cers. Sub­mariners drive sub­marines, avi­a­tors fly air­craft (and in the case of the naval avi­a­tors who fly fixed­wing pa­trol and sur­veil­lance air­craft from bases ashore, some might have lit­tle, if any, ex­pe­ri­ence at sea), and sur­face war­fare of­fi­cers op­er­ate ships.

To some ex­tent, sur­face war­fare of­fi­cers are the poor cousins of the avi­a­tion and sub­ma­rine elites. Se­nior com­mand po­si­tions in the US Navy tend to be held by avi­a­tors and sub­mariners. The

cur­rent Chief of Naval Op­er­a­tions (CNO) along with his pre­de­ces­sor are sub­mariners. The cur­rent Vice Chief of Naval Op­er­a­tions and the re­tir­ing Com­man­der of US Forces in the Pa­cific are both avi­a­tors — of the fixed-wing, shore-based type. The cur­rent Com­man­der of the Pa­cific Fleet and his nom­i­nated suc­ces­sor are both avi­a­tors, and the present Com­man­der of the Sev­enth Fleet and his pre­de­ces­sor are both sub­mariners.

To add to the po­ten­tial cul­tural prob­lem, Amer­i­can naval avi­a­tors are not ex­pected to have bridge ex­pe­ri­ence in the same way their op­po­site num­bers in the Bri­tish Royal Navy and Royal Aus­tralian Navy are ex­pected to have. While se­nior Amer­i­can naval com­man­ders are un­doubt­edly highly ex­pe­ri­enced in an op­er­a­tional and strate­gic sense and may have se­nior sur­face war­fare of­fi­cers on their staffs, there may be some cul­tural lim­i­ta­tions in driv­ing through nec­es­sary re­forms af­ter ma­jor sur­face ship ac­ci­dents.

The US Navy might re­con­sider its “un­re­stricted line of­fi­cer” con­cept whereby its sur­face war­fare of­fi­cers are ex­pected to gain ex­pe­ri­ence as plat­form and com­bat sys­tem en­gi­neers at the ex­pense of sea­man­ship and nav­i­ga­tion. A re­cent ar­ti­cle in the US Naval In­sti­tute Pro­ceed­ings showed that a sur­face war­fare of­fi­cer might be in com­mand of a de­stroyer or frigate af­ter about 18 years of ser­vice, about half of which may have been at sea. And those sea post­ings may well have been in the engi­neer­ing and com­bat sys­tems de­part­ments. This might be suf­fi­cient to pre­pare an of­fi­cer to fight a ship, but it’s open to ques­tion whether it’s suf­fi­cient time to pro­duce a com­pe­tent and ex­pe­ri­enced ship driver.

Then there’s the is­sue of bridge re­source man­age­ment. US de­stroy­ers and cruis­ers can have a “foot­ball team” of peo­ple on the bridge. Leav­ing aside the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer who may or may not be on the bridge, these will in­clude the of­fi­cer of the deck, re­spon­si­ble to the cap­tain for safe nav­i­ga­tion; a con­ning of­fi­cer or­der­ing changes of course and speed; a ju­nior of­fi­cer of the deck mon­i­tor­ing radar and com­mu­ni­ca­tions; a helms­man; quar­ter­mas­ters who plot the ship’s course; com­mu­ni­ca­tions sailors man­ning ra­dio links with other ships; and look­outs. Then sev­eral decks be­low, the Com­bat In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter (CIC) con­sists of a sep­a­rate team of of­fi­cers and sailors tasked with mon­i­tor­ing radar and other in­for­ma­tion about ves­sels in the ship’s vicin­ity and re­lay­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to the bridge.

This num­ber of peo­ple on the bridge is rather more than might be found on the bridge of an equiv­a­lent size war­ship in another navy. Another big dif­fer­ence with the US Navy is that non-com­mis­sioned quar­ter­mas­ters un­der­take the hands-on nav­i­ga­tion of a ship, fix­ing its po­si­tion by a va­ri­ety of means, and mak­ing course ad­just­ments.

It’s es­sen­tial that this team be man­aged ef­fi­ciently with a min­i­mum of fuss and noise. How­ever, this may not be the case. A pi­lot who nav­i­gated an Amer­i­can guided-mis­sile cruiser through the nav­i­ga­tion­ally in­tri­cate wa­ters of the Tor­res Strait be­tween Aus­tralia and New Guinea de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion on the ship’s bridge to me as “or­ga­nized chaos.” A record­ing of con­ver­sa­tions on the bridge of the USS Porter prior to the col­li­sion in 2012 cer­tainly showed a sit­u­a­tion of chaos, which un­doubt­edly con­trib­uted to the in­ci­dent.1 It should have sent alarm bells ring­ing through­out the Navy, but un­for­tu­nately no fol­low-up ac­tion ap­pears to have been taken, beg­ging the ques­tion of whether this in­ac­tion could have con­trib­uted to the Fitzger­ald and Mccain col­li­sions.

Amer­i­can naval com­men­ta­tors fre­quently al­lude to the im­por­tance of com­pli­ance with the Con­ven­tion on the In­ter­na­tional Reg­u­la­tions for Pre­vent­ing Col­li­sions at Sea (Col­regs) to en­sure nav­i­ga­tional safety. This is cer­tainly im­por­tant, but it would be bet­ter to avoid a “holier than thou” im­pli­ca­tion that the US Navy sticks to the rules and oth­ers don’t.

Other Fac­tors at Work

While the above points all help ex­plain why US war­ships are hav­ing ac­ci­dents, there is another im­por­tant fac­tor that con­trib­uted to the col­li­sions in­volv­ing the Fitzger­ald and Mccain, as well as the Porter — no ship was show­ing Au­to­matic Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Sys­tem (AIS) data at the time of its ac­ci­dent. This was in or­der to keep their iden­tity as Amer­i­can war­ships se­cret. Not show­ing AIS in ar­eas of heavy ship­ping traf­fic, such as Tokyo Bay or the Sin­ga­pore Strait, was un­safe and un-sea­man­like nav­i­ga­tional prac­tice. For­tu­nately, the Navy has now or­dered its ships to show AIS in such ar­eas.

The Fitzger­ald, Mccain and Porter col­li­sions

all oc­curred at night, and all three ships were pro­ceed­ing at a speed that was ex­ces­sive for the cir­cum­stances. Sev­eral com­mon fac­tors showed up in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions into these col­li­sions: a lack of un­der­stand­ing and ad­her­ence to Col­regs, in­clud­ing the need to pro­ceed at a safe speed; poor in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer and key per­son­nel on the bridge; a lack of knowl­edge of key bridge sys­tems; and a fail­ure of CICS to pro­vide ad­e­quate sup­port to the bridge.

All three col­li­sions in­volved war­ships crash­ing around in busy ship­ping lanes at ex­ces­sive speed with­out enough re­gard for other users of the sea. The sov­er­eign im­mu­nity of war­ships should not ex­clude war­ships from fol­low­ing com­mon-sense nav­i­ga­tional safety rules, par­tic­u­larly in con­gested ship­ping ar­eas. Un­for­tu­nately, this sug­gests an at­ti­tude of su­pe­ri­or­ity and ex­cep­tion­al­ism — “we are Amer­i­can war­ships and we don’t have to fol­low the rules!” This cul­ture might also breed a fail­ure to learn from the ac­ci­dents, fu­el­ing the per­sis­tent worry that the US Navy has been slow to learn from its mis­takes.

Re­think the Cul­ture

These three col­li­sions also sug­gest a more con­tentious cul­tural is­sue: the pos­si­bil­ity that a feel­ing of su­pe­ri­or­ity might per­vade the US Navy. This is ap­par­ent in the catchcry that we are “the big­gest and the best.” The US Navy is cer­tainly the big­gest, and the best when it comes to naval war­fare hard­ware, although that po­si­tion is now be­ing con­tested in some di­men­sions by the Chi­nese. Rather, the faults ap­pear to lie on the per­son­nel side — in the ar­eas of train­ing, or­ga­ni­za­tion, man­age­ment and cul­ture.

The sur­face war­ships of the Sev­enth Fleet are the most vis­i­ble el­e­ments of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary power in the Indo-pa­cific re­gion. The cred­i­bil­ity of that power de­pends on these ves­sels be­ing seen to op­er­ate both safely and ef­fi­ciently. The re­cent ac­ci­dents have dam­aged the re­quired im­age. Rather than just look­ing for so­lu­tions in terms of ad­di­tional re­sources, more ships, more crews and im­proved work­ing hours, there are deeper cul­tural and per­son­nel is­sues to be ad­dressed, even though this may mean turn­ing over many years of tra­di­tion. Amer­ica’s friends and al­lies in the Indo-pa­cific re­gion look to the US Navy, and the Sev­enth Fleet in par­tic­u­lar, to put their or­ga­ni­za­tions in or­der.

Sam Bate­man had four lengthy sea com­mands in the Royal Aus­tralian Navy, in­clud­ing on a frigate and a guided-mis­sile de­stroyer. He is now a Pro­fes­so­rial Re­search Fel­low at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Cen­tre for Ocean Re­sources and Se­cu­rity (ANCORS), Univer­sity of Wollongong, Aus­tralia.

Photo cour­tesy of the US Navy

Not so ship­shape: The ex­ten­sive dam­age to the USS Porter af­ter its col­li­sion with an oil tanker in the Strait of Hor­muzin 2012.

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