Analysis

One Embarrassing Accident Too Many for the U.S. Navy

Two fatal collisions with commercial vessels in a matter of months have caused heads to roll among the admiralty, but it may not be enough to turn the tide for U.S. Pacific Command

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision, in Singapore waters August 21, 2017.
AHMAD MASOOD/REUTERS

The plot is coarsely put together, like the comic books or tabloids that feed U.S. President Donald Trump’s endless fantasies in lieu of facts. First, there are the senior commanders, admirals Harry Harris and Scott Swift – names that could have come from the creators of Clark Kent or Peter Parker (Superman and Spider-Man), or maybe Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or David Duke, ex-grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Next is a political-naval hero, the third in a maritime dynasty, locked in a struggle with the villain. The ship that commemorates his ancestors is then involved in a fatal accident, which raises doubts about the fitness of the entire army said villain commands.

The collision of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker near the Singapore coast last Monday, which killed 10 sailors, was one accident too many for the U.S. Navy.

Accidents are bound to happen, especially at night and especially on crowded waterways. Not all of the merchant ships’ crews are qualified, and the naval officers on duty aren’t always on deck. Millions of professional and amateur seamen worldwide, military and civilian, memorize the rules and are supposed to know who has the right of way and what extreme situation justifies an emergency deviation from the regulations.

But a fastidious organization with strict rules cannot put up with a second accident in less than three months in the same arena, and a fourth time since the beginning of the year.

Senator John McCain visits the USS John S. McCain in Vietnam, June 2017.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class

The U.S. Navy’s tough management approach sees compassion in short supply, so the guillotine is working full steam and captains’ heads are rolling – as has always been the case on the sea. But the deposers themselves are not immune to the same fate.

Since the punishment is intended to deter, there is no compassion and no grace period. Cdr. Bryce Benson, the wounded commander of the USS Fitzgerald – who was trapped in his cabin and extracted at great pain by his sailors after his destroyer collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan in June – lost his commanders’ confidence and position. The announcement of his dismissal was published on the eve of the USS McCain’s collision, but the fleet’s commander in the Pacific didn’t realize he would be next in line.

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, the three-star commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet and in charge of the captains held responsible for their ship’s fate, was unceremoniously dismissed on Wednesday, even though he was planning to retire in a few weeks anyway. One moment, staff were hard at work on the farewell parties and grand speeches of his commanders Harris and Swift; the next, a highly esteemed, veteran officer was being thrown to the fish.

How does this happen in an apparatus known for its thorough investigations, based on an unbiased search for the truth in order to prevent recurring mishaps? Could the U.S. Navy be suffering from similar flaws to those that weakened NASA, which, despite the lessons of space shuttle Challenger in 1986, still suffered a similarly fatal failure with Columbia 17 years later? And what can be learned about the U.S. military’s performance when Trump boasts, recites battle slogans and promises abundant victories?

Only a few months have passed since Trump bragged of the Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from two destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, hitting an air base near Homs that was the alleged source of a chemical weapons attack. One of the destroyers, USS Porter, was also involved in a collision five years ago.

Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, speaking at a news conference near the damaged USS John McCain and the USS America at Changi Naval Base, Singapore, August 22, 2017.
STRINGER/REUTERS

In a case of poor timing – or good, in Trump’s malicious eyes – Monday’s collision occurred on the eve of his rally in Arizona, the state of Sen. John McCain, who recently took revenge for his humiliation at the then-presidential candidate’s hands in 2015. Trump’s bloated ego is one thing – he wouldn’t be Trump without it. The wonder is how he couldn’t see that others have a modicum of self-esteem and hurt pride, too.

McCain was critically wounded twice, once as a fighter pilot who crashed and was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; and, second, as a presidential candidate who lost the appointment to George W. Bush and, later, the White House to Barack Obama. Watching him swallow the despicable insults hurled by Trump (“I like people who weren’t captured”) and to miss one opportunity to deny the president an achievement in the vote on reforming the Affordable Health Care Act – that was too much already.

McCain, who has brain cancer, rose from his sickbed to strike at Trump in July. McCain’s hostility toward Trump is his living will, and Trump railed and ranted against him in Phoenix this week like a sore loser.

Less than three months ago, the USS McCain docked at a port in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the senator visited it. The captain now facing the ax, Commanding Officer Alfredo Sanchez, greeted Capt. (ret.) McCain, whose hopes to follow in his grandfather and father’s footsteps and also become an admiral were shattered in the early 1980s.

All the McCains fought on various fronts in the same command: the father and grandfather in World War II; the grandson in Vietnam. While the young pilot was imprisoned in Hanoi between October 1967 and March 1973, his father was appointed head of the Pacific Command, theoretically the rank in charge of the Vietnam forces’ commander. In fact, the war was directly run on the Washington-Saigon axis. The POW McCain, whose heroism Trump questioned, refused his captors’ proposal to release him earlier than scheduled for propaganda considerations, as a gesture to his father.

In this 1961 file photo, then-Lt. John S. McCain III, left, and his parents, Rear Adm. John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain, take part in the ceremony to commission McCain Field, the U.S. Navy training base named in honor of Adm. John S. McCain, in photo at top, respectively grandfather and father to the two McCains.
/AP

The Pacific Ocean has been the domain of the U.S. Navy since the arena was divided, in World War II, among the naval operations of Admiral Chester Nimitz and the ground operations – which required marine assistance – under Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command. All the chiefs of U.S. Pacific Command in the subsequent 70 years came from the U.S. Navy.

The current commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, has a four-star rank (equivalent to that of the generals commanding the air and ground forces in the arena), Swift is a subordinate and commands the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The problem in this chain of command in recent years is that none of its links comes from destroyers or patrol boats.

The need for a reminder of what used to be common knowledge was so clear that the U.S. Naval Institute’s official magazine, Proceedings, published this month – right after the USS Fitzgerald collision, right before the USS McCain – a 45-year-old article about how to avoid collisions at sea, called “When Am I Committed to Collision?”

Its author had no pretense for originality, only giving voice to the experience of Nimitz and those under his command in the Pacific in the ’40s. “No officer, whatever his rank and experience, should flatter himself that he is immune to the inexplicable lapses in judgment, calculation and memory, or slips of the tongue in giving orders which have so often brought disaster to men of the highest reputation and ability,” Nimitz warned.

The most embarrassing thing – although not more than Trump’s actual presidency – is that the army’s seasickness undermines the regular U.S. argument against Iran after every altercation the 5th Fleet has with the Revolutionary Guard in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz. “Unprofessional” is what they call it in the Pentagon. In Tehran, no doubt, they are joyfully awaiting the next war of words.