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Lack of Money is Not What Caused Fatal Ship Collisions

As someone who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy, qualifying as a naval flight officer navigator and tactical coordinator, and as officer of the deck, I am heartbroken and concerned about what may have caused the recent crashes of naval ships in the Pacific.

I am heartbroken because a total of 17 enlisted sailors who had volunteered to defend the nation were were killed, and for no good reason, the result of a June crash involving the USS Fitzgerald [1] destroyer and a Philippine flagged container ship in the busy approaches to Tokyo Bay, and an August collision of the USS John McCain [2] destroyer and a Liberian flagged tanker near the heavily traveled Strait of Malacca.

[3]I am concerned that the leadership of these two modern U.S. Navy ships—each equipped with radars that can track objects smaller than a meter in size, satellite navigation aids, collision warning systems, and an array of other sensors to provide situational awareness—allowed this to happen and that some are using these tragic incidents to push another agenda.

The first crash that resulted in casualties occurred at night on June 17 as the USS Fitzgerald approached Tokyo Bay. The captain and his deputy, the executive officer (XO), were both sleeping upon impact, leaving the ship in the hands of younger, less experienced officers and sailors. Seven sailors died. This is a dereliction of duty which, after an investigation, has appropriately resulted in the captain and his XO being relieved of duty, [4] effectively ending their careers.

We still do not know who was in charge of the USS John McCain as it approached Singapore on August 21. We do, however, know that a crowded waterway requires the utmost vigilance from the captain and the crew, and that an investigation is currently underway. A total of 10 sailors’ bodies were recovered after that tragedy.

But even if the captains were sleeping, the people on duty, with the help of the available technology, should have been more than capable of preventing these highly maneuverable ships from running into lumbering cargo ships and tankers. Were the sailors not adequately trained or was the technology not working properly? If so, why not?

It is troubling that proponents of an even larger defense budget, and the Navy in particular, are using these tragic events to push an agenda instead of dealing with the actual problems at hand. With a current budget of $700 billion, proponents of increasing the defense budget ignore the fact that, as General David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon recently pointed out, [5] the U.S. already accounts for more than one-third of the world’s military expenditures and spends more than three times as much as China and 10 times more than Russia. Moreover, they note that the state of our military is more than adequate, and that large increases in the defense budget are unnecessary.

Proponents of increasing our military expenditures also claim that, as a result of the Budget Control Act (BCA), the defense budget has been cut by $200 billion since 2013. However, this argument ignores the fact that $180 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations (critics call it the “Pentagon Slush Fund” [6])—which is not impacted by sequester—has been spent on items having nothing to do with the wars. Congress has also granted the Pentagon another $50 billion in relief from the caps.


Additionally, several defense hawks have used the tired talking point that the Navy is smaller than at any time since before World War I, while blaming President Barack Obama for the “insufficient” size. Yes, it is true that today’s naval fleet of 272 ships is smaller than the fleet in 1916. But would you rather have today’s fleet consisting of 11 aircraft carriers and 84 cruisers and destroyers, or the 36 battleships and 28 gunboats from 1916?

Moreover, since it takes dozens of years between the time a ship is funded until it becomes operational, the size of today’s Navy is primarily the result of decisions made by the George W. Bush administration. In fact, 80 ships that received funding from the Obama administration are currently under construction as the size of the Navy will expand to more than 300 ships by the end of the decade, all without a dramatic increase in the Navy budget.

Finally, the reason that the Navy does not have more ships is not because of insufficient funding, but rather a result of how poorly the Navy manages the funds that it is allocated. For example, the USS Gerald Ford, the aircraft carrier that President Donald Trump used as a platform to call for a larger Navy, was two years behind schedule and 30 percent over budget (currently at $13 billion [7]). Those several billion dollars of cost overruns would have permitted the Navy to build several more cruisers and destroyers or increase its manpower.

And then there is the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The Navy planned to build 55 of these vessels for $40 billion, or about $725 million each. Instead, the Navy will spend the same amount of money while building no more than 20 vessels. Additionally, if the Navy wanted to put more money into its shipbuilding account, it could buy the FA-18-E/F for half the price of the F-35’s that they are currently purchasing.

Just as there has been a failure of leadership among the Navy’s top officials in the Pentagon, other officials in the operational chain of command are responsible for the increased likelihood of these accidents.

First, in 2003, the Navy cancelled the intensive six-month course at the Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS). During these six months, young officers studied navigation, basic seamanship, engineering, and maintenance before being assigned to their first ship. This was the equivalent of what navigators, like myself, did before going to our first aircraft squadron. Although the Navy instituted a 14-week course last year, the damage was done.

Second, the Navy’s senior leadership in the Pacific leaves much to be desired. While the deaths on the Fitzgerald and the McCain garnered the attention of the hierarchy, two serious incidents earlier this year, though they did result in casualties, should have gotten their attention as well. On January 31, the guided missile cruiser, Antietam, ran aground in Tokyo Bay, and on July 9, the guided missile cruiser, Lake Champlain, collided with a South Korean vessel east of the Korean Peninsula. Had the Navy ordered a stand-down as it did after the Fitzgerald and McCain tragedies, these two tragedies might have been avoided.

Third, in addition to the accidents, there was the missing carrier situation. On April 8, the Navy’s Pacific command leaked to the press that the USS Carl Vinson and its four escort ships would arrive off the coast of North Korea by April 16, the same day that Kim Jong-Un would celebrate his grandfather’s birthday with a parade and ballistic missile test. On April 11, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, after meeting with Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the Pacific Command, said that the Vinson was on its way.

Unfortunately, not only did the Vinson not arrive off the coast of the Korean Peninsula in time to send a powerful message during North Korea’s parade and missile test, it was actually sailing in the opposite direction in order to [8]take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, about 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.

Fourth, in addition to losing an aircraft carrier, the Navy’s Pacific Command has also seen several of its people taking prostitutes, cash gifts, and other favors from a Malaysian defense contractor, Leonard Francis, known as Fat Leonard, [9] in exchange for inside information that he used to make millions of dollars.

It is clear that the problem is not money. The real problem, especially in the Pacific, is leadership. After these two tragic incidents, the Navy ordered an operational pause. Why did they do nothing after the two incidents earlier this year? Similarly, why did the Pacific Command not know that an aircraft carrier was not going toward North Korea, but going the opposite way? And why did the Bush administration allow the Navy to cancel the Surface Warfare Officer Course?

The good thing about the Navy is that while they give commanding officers and fleet commanders a great deal of authority, they also hold her or him responsible for whatever happens in their command and make them pay a price for whatever goes wrong. As a result, the captain of the Fitzgerald and the Commander of the Seventh Fleet have already been removed. But it should not stop there.         

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress [10] and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information [11]. He was formerly director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relation [12]s, and served as President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics) from 1981 to 1985.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Lack of Money is Not What Caused Fatal Ship Collisions"

#1 Comment By john On September 6, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

You can’t have any new ships until you stop crashing the ships you have! My stupid little sailboat has an AIS receiver, this will alarm if I am in danger of a collision. This works great, if used would have prevented both of the recent collisions and cost under $1000.

#2 Comment By James Drouin On September 6, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

Dear Mr. Korb – I believe you let senior leadership in the Navy off lightly, both at the Pentagon and in the operations chain of commend. Further, I believe that any “honest” review of said leadership’s performance over the past decade (at least), would lead to criminal indictments and lengthy prision terms at a minimum.

#3 Comment By New York lefty On September 6, 2017 @ 11:12 pm

It’s unimaginable that officers were sent into the fleet without any training.

#4 Comment By GregR On September 7, 2017 @ 1:54 am

Sadly its even worse than that. In the commercial marine world the USN is considered a joke, its officers incompetent, and its practices bizarre and destructive. Fundamentally ships should be run by Captains (not USN Captains, sea Captains) it used to be that the Captain of a USN ship had dedicated his life to time at sea, and had decades of experience offshore, today it is a two year billet necessary to punch your ticket to promotion and more influential jobs. The reality is the Navy Captains have no idea what they are doing.

Compare this to the commercial side. Sure you can get a license (100 tons) after 360 days at sea, but no one will allow you to actually command a ship larger than a row boat with that. Figure it will take 10 years or so working full time on board minimum to actually take command. And if you do it that fast it will be on a small ship ferrying workers to an oil rig or the like.

To take command of a vessel like the Fitz figure you are going to have 15 years at sea, more time that the Captain of the Fitz had in the Navy, working progressively further up the deck crew food chain. You have spent years honing your craft and figuring out what works, and learned from other people that did the same.

The problem with the USN is they turned being the Captain of a ship into just another billet, a hole you have to punch to get promoted. Combine this with the Up or Out policy, where if you don’t get promoted you get forced out, and you are left with a deck crew who frankly are barely competent at their jobs being led by a Captain who barely knows his. It is a broken system and no amount of ‘stand downs’ or ‘leadership priority swaps’ or additional training in a classroom is going to fix it.

IF we want to fix this problem we need to return being the Captain of a ship to its status as the culmination of a career. It needs to be a lifestyle, a calling, and the place you stay until you retire. NOT a short term command post needed for the next step in your promotion chain. Either that or start hiring real Captains who know what they are doing to run the ship and let the USN Captain act as the administrator.

#5 Comment By W. Adderholdt On September 7, 2017 @ 4:39 am

For the CO to go to sleep and leave the bridge under the control of the officer of the deck is not “dereliction of duty.” It is standard procedure.

#6 Comment By Observation2017 On September 7, 2017 @ 8:00 am

Self-driving ships would do much better in open seas all the way to dock. Why they need new ships. Or at least new software.

Not a surprise. Its because military finished releasing all the sailors and soldiers held to extended non-voluntary service for the Gulf war. Lower ranks never got trained and yet some commanders continue to be arrogant about the level of ship performance and their own command skils.

That is commander asks for unnecessarily close ,manuevers from undertrained crews — then fail to stay monitor those manuevers. In some cases the commander has never done that close a manuever either and is demanding the crew cover fro him (on the assumption they should be skilled enough to do so).

#7 Comment By Don N On September 7, 2017 @ 11:15 am

“GregR says:
September 7, 2017 at 1:54 am
Sadly its even worse than that. In the commercial marine world the USN is considered a joke, its officers incompetent, and its practices bizarre and destructive. Fundamentally ships should be run by Captains (not USN Captains, sea Captains) it used to be that the Captain of a USN ship had dedicated his life to time at sea, and had decades of experience offshore, today it is a two year billet necessary to punch your ticket to promotion and more influential jobs. ”

This hard to believe. I’m not saying I don’t believe you, but the Naval Academy alone graduates about 750 naval officers a year. There are only 272 boats needing captains. If what you are saying is true or even an exaggeration, then I don’t think there is a greater example of how bloated and wasteful the military is than this.

#8 Comment By bt On September 7, 2017 @ 11:46 am

The author mentions the LCS ships.

The LCS program qualifies as a true debacle. It’s not the case that these ships push boundaries the way something like the F-35 does (or a nuclear submarine or carrier). This was a little coastal gunboat.

The Navy spent years on this program, it was a slow-motion disaster and there were many warnings from all directions and obvious signs of disaster and it took forever to cancel it – and after all that we are still going to buy 32 of these Little Crappy Ships.

#9 Comment By GregR On September 7, 2017 @ 12:52 pm


You don’t have to command a ship to get promoted, but you have to command something and generally command of a ship is considered better than other options. For those selected for bigger things being in command of a ship is pretty much the best option, the bigger the ship and the more weapon systems the better. Sure command of a shoreside facility will punch the ‘command experience’ ticket, but being in command of a ship is better.

But keep in mind that while 750 new officers are minted a year few of those will stay on for a career. Most will serve their four or six years then step back to a civilian life taking their skills with them, and while retention rates are always important it is also necessary for this to happen. The military is a pyramid and only a small percentage of the people who start will make the rank of Commander, which is where taking over a ship is common.

Now I am not claiming Cmdr. Benson is unique, but look at his career as an example. He had served four previous tours onboard ships. If you assume each tour was for two years, and credit every day of his tour as sea time he had nine combined years (including a year as the XO of the Fitz before taking command) at sea. Not nine years of command experience, but nine years at sea in any capacity.

Most navy ships operate on a 50/50 split, i.e. they are deployed and underway about 50% of the time so his actual sea time was roughly 4.5 years.

In the commercial world this would have qualified him for a midlevel bridge position, maybe as a relief, or watch stander, but certainly not as the Captain of a 8,000 ton vessel. Even just looking at minimum required sea time he would not have qualified for the license needed to be the PIC of that ship.

Figure with that sea service time he would be expected to be a very junior 2nd mate, or a senior 3rd, on a vessel 1/3 the size. Working his way up the food chain not in command of a big sea going vessel. The Captain of USN vessels almost universally would not qualify to do the same job in the civilian world. They don’t have the time, experience, or qualifications to do what we expect out of them. Every single mariner captaining a ship carrying boxes of shoes from China to LA is better trained than every USN captain operating a warship. It the system that is broken not the men.

#10 Comment By Wizard On September 7, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

W. Adderholdt – Yes, under most conditions that would indeed be SOP. When you’re in open ocean in the middle of the night, it would make sense to let watch standers get a little bridge time on their record. But in this case, the ship was approaching port, and a very busy port at that. Given the increased risks posed by sailing in a high-traffic area, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to expect at least the XO to be on the bridge.
Further, the exec and the captain are ultimately responsible for anything that happens on their ship, even if they’re not immediately present. Overseeing the training and readiness of the officers and crew is traditionally the responsibility of the XO. If the people standing watch weren’t prepared, then he wasn’t doing his job. If the XO wasn’t doing his job and the CO wasn’t addressing it, then the CO wasn’t doing his job, either.

#11 Comment By Hyperion On September 7, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

The Fat Leonard Scandal is under most people’s radar. It is truly astonishing in scope and venality. But I heard some guy on C-SPAN assert that the scandal will have very long term effects in that so many upper echelon brass were implicated.

Evidently the Navy had to extract a fellow groomed for and serving in a very important naval nuclear command position and assign him to oversee the investigation because everybody else with the necessary clout (rank?) was tainted. And yet how many folks have any knowledge of this scandal?

#12 Comment By Steve On September 7, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

The other websites that I visit, the “fake news” ones, suggest that everyone review the photos and look for marks of scraping. Two ships underway and in almost the same direction would scrape one another wouldn’t they? Yet the one picture that I have seen of the USS John McCain suggests a circular, full-on, T-bone impact from the submerged prow of the shipping vessel as if the ship was “dead in the water”.
Wasn’t the USS Donald Cook “dead in the water” a few years back after a fly-by by a Mig fighter, while the Cook was shadowing the Russian navy? I’ve read that it had to be towed back to Turkey.
I’ve also read that all of our aircraft carriers are taking a turn getting their copper wires replaced by fiber-optic cable in Norfolk’s shipyard.
Perhaps we should at least consider the possibility that our technology has been leapfrogged by an adversary who feels quite comfortable about openly discussing a gold-backed petro-yuan. Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Ghadaffi didn’t last long after they started talking about an alternative to the petro-dollar.
Yet, the Chinese are opening ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti without fear of reprisal.
I don’t think our officer corp is the biggest naval problem that our empire faces now.

#13 Comment By FreeOregon On September 7, 2017 @ 3:24 pm

Gee, and I thought the Russians had hacked the USN GPS and navigation systems. If they no longer can steer straight can they shoot straight?

#14 Comment By cdugga On September 7, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

Electronic sabotage is a possibility. More probable is play phone distraction. I see it every single day. Those piloting the machines around me act as though operating the machine is distracting them from more pressing business. And it bleeds over into everything else so that even when they are not on the play phone they are thinking about what they are going to do next chance they get to be on the play phone. I guess we can blame the captains for allowing their crew to become distracted. I regularly see people 2 blocks in front of me, who have more than enough time to go more than once, wait until I am right on top of them before pulling out in front of me. I regularly see people not go when the light turns green, as if they are stopped at the intersection to do anything but go when the light changes. I have seen people stopped at residential intersections several blocks ahead who have tons of time to go somewhere but don’t until I finally get behind them and honk to make them look up from, I don’t know what. I often see people slow down and even stop at a green light that must have been red when their head last registered what was going on ahead. Play phone addiction is responsible for many auto collisions. I have read that one third of auto accidents are now caused by play phone distraction.
Until the sailors are no longer subject to play phone distraction, it is unlikely that collisions on the open seas will go away. Collisions happen because of distractions, and porn consuming sailors on watch may be more to blame than unqualified captains or high-tech jam from the new sino-russian alliance. If we are being jammed you might think more hands on watch might be warranted. As long as they are not on deck watching blondie sucking on hot dogs.

#15 Comment By Anonymous On September 7, 2017 @ 11:26 pm

This is very interesting, but my main concern is that transgendered people be allowed to serve in the military, with dignity and confident that they’ll be able to succeed there to the best of their abilities.

#16 Comment By Bob Granholm On September 8, 2017 @ 12:49 am

Having also recently served on the bridge of a warship, I don’t buy this story. Were all of the duty officers and duty watchman and radar and ops people not working? It is inconceivable that all the on duty sailors, and the redundant systems all failed at the same time. Something else happened.

#17 Comment By Aaron On September 8, 2017 @ 6:58 am

The root of the problems of all of DoD is that the Byzantine management decision making systems result in suboptimal decisions.

The personnel system under DOPMA makes “ticket punching” on a timeline more important than doing one thing expertly for a long time.

The JCIDS process (or its predecesssor) does not guarantee good requirements, in fact it sometimes results in stupid, civ complicated, expensive requirements put together by complete naifs.

The PPBES is completely hideous, adding strict rules that often force smart people to do suboptimal things with their budget.

The acquisition process is also Byzantine, and in top of its own stupid complexity, it also is hostage to DOPMA for its military officers, JCIDS for the requirements it has to implement, and PPBES driving how money is spent.

And navy officers (like all other officers) have to navigate a narrow career path to “get their tickets punched” in order to get promoted, making many if not all officers familiar with a lot of jobs and experts at nothing.

#18 Comment By N. Joseph Potts On September 8, 2017 @ 9:42 am

Well, at least the navy has time to sentence people like Commander Jay Wylie to 10 yeqrs in the brig for sexually assaulting two female naval officers.

Maybe if we could just bring back the one-sex navy like the one I served in 40 years ago …

#19 Comment By Will Harrington On September 8, 2017 @ 11:37 am

W. Adderholdt says:
September 7, 2017 at 4:39 am
For the CO to go to sleep and leave the bridge under the control of the officer of the deck is not “dereliction of duty.” It is standard procedure.

This depends entirely on the situation the ship is in at the time.

#20 Comment By LMIDF On September 8, 2017 @ 1:38 pm


You’re talking about the Oliver Hazard Perry-class, right?

Do forgive my skepticism.

#21 Comment By bt On September 8, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

“Do forgive my skepticism”



Let me know how those magical LCS swappable mission modules are coming, would you? You know, the ones that were supposed to give this little ship the capabilities to, you know, do great things…

#22 Comment By observeandreport On September 9, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

DoD wide we have a problem of officer competence, and it’s not just due to poor training. Currently, the DoD sees promotion not as a reward for excellence but an incentive for retention and a way to make room for the next generation — the up and out system. The result is that we get a top heavy officer corps with leaders who possess unique capabilities for learning quickly on the job (or for faking it) but lack depth and expertise, as GregR pointed out. The fix is to reduce the size of the officer corps while increasing the length of service. This would give officers more time to learn their positions and space to stay in a billets where they are comfortable or well-suited. We might also consider adding senior mid and field grade ranks, Sr. Lt. (Sr. Captain US Army), Sr. Lt. Cdr. (Sr. Major US Army), to incentivize retention. The second problem the DoD faces is that a college degree in the 21st no longer means what it used to when the requirement was put in place: intellectual ability and industriousness. Given that a degree remains the ticket to the officer corps, the ranks now can fill with idle leaders who lack basic intellectual abilities like critical thinking and curiosity. We can fix this by requiring the ASVAB–already given to enlistees–to match capability to duty and by upping GPA standards. Such reforms would reduce the candidate pool, but would screen for the best, a recruiting technique not without historical precedence…


#23 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 11, 2017 @ 6:29 am

Symptoms of what happens when it’s not about defending the nation’s borders (remember them?) but the enormous profits of an outsized war making industry that demands expanding foreign empire to pump stock and executive pay, and to maintain so many of the remaining well paid jobs.

#24 Comment By Gyre On September 11, 2017 @ 10:09 am

Bob Granholm said it best, “Having also recently served on the bridge of a warship, I don’t buy this story. Were all of the duty officers and duty watchman and radar and ops people not working? It is inconceivable that all the on duty sailors, and the redundant systems all failed at the same time. Something else happened.”

#25 Comment By John McMillin On September 11, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

These are all good, useful comments by people who sound much more familiar with the issues of the Navy than I claim to be. But from here, it seems like the political discussion of the Navy has been distracted by futile ship-counting exercises. Maybe we need to prioritize personnel over procurement?

#26 Comment By Hexexis On September 12, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

I’d wager my comment here is totally irrelevant to the topic (I’m only astounded to read for the first time that the Navy canned its SWO school in 2003; which I attended in the early 1980s), but I will never, ever forget the look on our CO’s face when informed by a contractor that his ship was getting the (then-new) CIWS. CO not informed by his CoC (group commander, squadron commander) but by a contractor, appearing aboard his vessel, blueprints in hand. “What’s all this?” he inquired weakly.

It was clear to me back then, >30 yr ago, that there was a CoC in name only. What the various links were doing one could hardly imagine. Even more unimaginable today, to me anyway.

#27 Comment By J. Colvin On September 14, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

As a watch officer (OOD) during my active Navy career, I never assumed that a merchant ship had an active watch. I much preferred to take early action to make sure we would stay clear. The last thing I wanted was to be in a position where I had to depend upon the merchant to avoid me.

These two collisions should never have happened. The Navy board of inquiry will get to the root cause and I will put money on it that it will not be operating tempo.