KNM Helge Ingstad, which collided with an oil tanker in early November. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Cavernia.
When naval vessels accidentally collide with other ships on the open seas, something has gone very wrong. If the collision is something other than an accident, the situation is far worse.
A recent collision between a Norwegian naval ship and an oil tanker following NATO exercises brought to mind two incidents last year involving American warships in the western Pacific. And that was before information emerged that an American naval officer was on the bridge of the Norwegian navy ship for unspecified purposes at the time of the incident.
In June 2017, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the shores of Japan. The accident killed seven of the Fitzgerald’s crew. Then, in August, the USS John S. McCain crashed into a tanker near Singapore. That collision killed 10 sailors. Both destroyers struck vessels more than three times their own size in gross tonnage. The U.S. Navy subsequently announced that the two vessels’ commanders would face court-martial proceedings and possible criminal charges, including negligent homicide. (The homicide charges were later dropped.) Some other officers on the Fitzgerald and the McCain also faced charges.
Ultimately, Commander Alfredo Sanchez of the McCain pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty. Commander Bryce Benson of the Fitzgerald has pleaded not guilty and will face a general court-martial proceeding in January.
Observers note that increasing American naval mishaps follow a long period in which the U.S. fleet has been stretched thinner and training has been sparser than commanders would like. Some sailors have reported that large vacancy numbers have contributed to widespread sleep deprivation, with a resulting uptick in human error. Turnover among ship crews also limits senior officers’ ability to develop the necessary expertise with all the complex mechanical and electronic equipment that is packed into a modern warship.
In the end, however, accidents usually reflect a breakdown in command and control procedures, which falls under the category of military discipline. This is why accidents like the two 2017 collisions usually involve some sort of disciplinary action, and can even be career-ending for senior officers. A Navy investigation determined that both the Fitzgerald and McCain crashes were avoidable and reflected “multiple failures by watch standers.” In addition to the consequences for the shipboard officers, Vice Admiral (now retired) Joseph P. Aucoin, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, was relieved of command after the high-profile collisions involving two of his fleet’s ships.
At least the causes of accidents can be studied and addressed. When dangerous situations arise because of regional or global geopolitical tensions, the immediate consequences can be just as serious, with the additional danger that the long-term ramifications can escalate to outcomes up to and including war.
Events in the South China Sea have tended in this direction for years. Chinese maritime aggression in the area is longstanding and brazen. Filipino fishing vessels receive the most regular harassment, but larger incidents are not unheard of. In 2014, the Vietnamese navy attempted to prevent the Chinese from setting up an oil rig in a disputed area, leading to a collision at sea. Vietnam said the collision was intentional on the part of the Chinese vessel. Recently, a U.S. naval vessel that exercised America’s claims to freedom of navigation through the disputed waters had a near miss with a Chinese ship. The U.S. Navy said that the Chinese vessel came within 40 meters (44 yards) of the USS Decatur; some estimates put the two ships even closer. Beijing confirmed the maneuver’s intention was to drive the American ship away.
More recently, the Russians captured three Ukrainian naval vessels that were attempting to transit a strait that the two countries shared prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. The Russians are not only provoking Ukraine; they are also testing the degree of Western support Kiev can expect in the event of a more thorough blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. The long-term goal for Moscow, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear, has been to return Ukraine to the Russian orbit in fact, if not in law, by making Kiev dependent on Moscow’s goodwill for its political or physical survival. So far, the Western response has been about what Putin would have expected: a lot of talk and little significant action.
The Norwegian warship’s run-in with an oil tanker, thankfully, did not lead to any deaths, though eight people were injured in the collision. Nor does it appear that the tanker spilled any significant amount of oil as a result. But the Norwegian frigate was lost, a major blow to the Norwegian navy, which will have to decide whether to try to salvage and repair the ship or simply replace it. Moreover, the warship and the tanker reportedly could see one another and were communicating prior to the collision, raising serious questions about why it occurred at all. The BBC reported that both the police and the Accident Investigation Board Norway are looking into the incident.
Although nonmariners are not especially aware of the fact, seagoing traffic has as many rules and procedures as aviation, and for same reasons. Even a brief lapse can get people killed, or destroy valuable vessels and cargo. Some of the highest standards of all apply to naval traffic, which often involves dangerous payloads of weapons and explosives. The recent history of accidental and deliberate safety lapses tells us it is time to take a closer look at what is happening on the high seas.