WASHINGTON – Insufficient training and ship maintenance may have played a part in four naval ship collisions this year, U.S. Navy officials and government auditors told a congressional hearing on Thursday.
Admiral Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, told lawmakers that American naval technological advances were “meaningless” without well-trained sailors.
“We should not and cannot have collisions at sea,” he said. “You have my promise we’ll get to the bottom of these mishaps.”
The most recent accident involved the U.S.S. John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, which crashed into an oil tanker near Singapore Aug. 21. Ten sailors were killed in the collision, including Kevin Sayer Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., 23 of Manchester, Maryland.
On June 17, the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan. Seven U.S. sailors died in that incident, crash, including 24-year-old Xavier Alex Martin of Halethorpe, Maryland.
All four ships involved in collisions were in the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the largest of the Navy’s forward-deployed fleets. The fleet’s commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, was ousted following the crash of the McCain, and naval operations were suspended for one day on Aug. 23.
In his testimony to two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee, Moran said the pause in operations was not taken lightly, adding that it was an opportunity for commanding officers to review lessons learned from similar mishaps to ensure standards are has high as they need to be.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the armed services panel’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee, acknowledged the presence of Eckels’ mother in the audience and she was greeted with applause.
In a prepared statement, Wittman said that “the material condition and the operational readiness of the ships are significantly degraded and not acceptable.”
“Of our large surface combatants, the majority of the forward deployed ships are not properly ready to perform their primary warfare areas,” he said. “Overall, the negative trend lines associated with the operational readiness of our forward deployed ships are deeply troubling. These negative training trends clearly contributed to the lack of seamanship evident on board the USS John McCain and the USS Fitzgerald.”
Testimony during the hearing revealed numerous problems facing the fleet.
John H. Pendleton, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the Government Accountability Office, cited a 2014 Navy study that showed sailors were on duty 108 hours weekly, facing what he called “unrelenting” operational demand and a limited supply of ships. The GAO is the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress.
Aircraft carrier deployments from 2008-2011 spanned 6.4 months on average, according to written testimony by Pendleton. In 2015, that average spiked to 9 months.
Pendleton said these “aggressive” deployment schedules have had a detrimental effect on ship readiness. This has caused the Navy to “train on the margins” at times and “squeeze in training when they could,” he added.
“Manning has been a persistent challenge for the Navy,” Pendleton said.
The Navy has doubled its number of ships based overseas since 2006, according to a GAO report.
To meet demand, the Navy has increased deployment lengths, shortened – and in some cases nixed – training periods and reduced maintenance, resulting in “declining ship conditions and overall readiness,” according to the report.
Because of the decrease in naval personnel, Moran said the Navy’s standards for issuing certification had relaxed in recent years. While the lowered standards were perfectly legal, Moran conceded the Navy should not have accepted them.
At the time of their respective crashes, neither the Fitzgerald nor the McCain had proper certification, Pendleton added.
The Navy has plans to grow its fleet by as much as 30 percent, according to the GAO.
However, to meet that goal, the Navy must address its current understaffing, Moran said, noting that too much is demanded of the sailors.
“We aren’t big enough to do everything we’re tasked to do,” the admiral said. “Perhaps we’ve asked (the sailors) to do too much.”