Collisions reveal a Navy tragically undone by its can-do spirit

Editor’s note: This is the first of seven stories reported as part of a joint project by the Medill News Service and USA TODAY.

YOKOSUKA, Japan — The USS John S. McCain sits in dry dock at the home port of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, where workers swarm in and around the warship, urgently working to get it ready to return to sea. They will repair and paint over the gaping hole in the port side, where last summer a massive oil tanker punched into sleeping spaces, setting off a desperate scramble for survival. The 10 sailors who died had less than a minute to escape as seawater and fuel poured into their sleeping area.

The task is much the same 6,932 miles east, where the destroyer Fitzgerald is being extensively repaired in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Just two months before the McCain collision, the Fitzgerald — then homeported here in Yokosuka — was operating off the coast of Japan when it crossed into the path of a merchant ship. As with the tragedy aboard the McCain, the seven sailors who perished on the Fitzgerald had no warning and little time to get out.

Adding to the sense of alarm were another two nonfatal Navy warship crashes in the Western Pacific that occurred earlier in the year.

The Navy’s top officer — Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations — labeled the incidents a “trend” after the McCain collision and ordered a one-day fleet-wide stand-down, a pause to ensure safe operations.

Navy-directed investigations would determine that the collisions that killed 17 sailors were the avoidable, tragic results of disturbingly inept ship handling, communications and decision-making by numerous crew members. Moreover, they would reveal that the Navy long had institutionalized trade-offs on training and maintenance of forward-deployed forces to keep ships and sailors at sea. The increasingly hectic operations tempo — the frequency and duration of deployments — was demanded even as the number of ships and sailors was whittled down.

“As standards begin to drop, they then become acceptable and normal. I think that’s what happened,” said retired admiral Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations, in an interview. Roughead, directed by Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, led a strategic readiness review into the collisions and the issues affecting fleet operations. The USS John S. McCain, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, sits in dry dock for repairs at U.S. Fleet Activities in Yokosuka, Japan. (Photo: Edythe McNamee/Medill) One year after the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions, prosecutions continue against commanders and crew members of the two destroyers. Navy leaders implemented a series of changes to restore readiness to the Japan-based fleet, and more are to come. But the demand for Navy presence throughout the vast and volatile region is relentless and the stakes there are higher than in generations, particularly as China seeks to usurp long-held U.S. geopolitical dominance.

Beijing is “attempting to establish itself as a global power and a regionally dominant hegemon,” said Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer commander and managing director of the national security […]

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