Safety at Sea
Hard Maritime Lessons Being Relearned
K. JOSEPH SPEARS
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 4)

Recent collisions involving US Navy warships with commercial vessels in the Indo-Pacific waters highlight the risks faced everyday in the global maritime commons.

Collisions between vessels engaged in commercial and/or naval operations are not unknown. The U.S. Navy has learned a hard lesson that complex high tech warships are not immune to marine collisions, and lives have been lost as a result. In the two recent incidents involving USS John S McCain and USS Fitzgerald, 17 souls perished. Now the hard work of determining “why” begins, and it will be a lengthy process to determine the facts.

Learning from these incidents is an important element of risk management that involves a variety of investigations and may include marine litigation.

The Royal Canadian Navy has had its own share of marine collisions. HMCS Kootenay collided with the 60,000-ton bulk carrier Nordpol off Cape Flattery on a foggy June morning in 1989. Supply ship HMCS Protecteur sustained damage after a collision with Canadian warship HMCS Algonquin in 2013. Earlier this year, a Canadian Orca-class training vessel collided with a docked submarine during a docking manœuver. Canadian ships have also been involved in collisions during towing exercises and during replenishment at sea.

Nor are such incidents restricted to North American ships. In April, a Russian naval ship sank after colliding with a freighter off the coast of Turkey. In 1942, ocean liner Queen Mary, which was carrying about 20,000 American troops to join the Allied Forces, collided with its navy escort, HMS Curacoa, slicing the cruiser in half. Both had experienced Captains on the bridge. Clearly, the history of marine safety legislation is built on a solid foundation past incidents.


In a tragic accident of evasive manœuvres gone wrong, the SS Queen Mary, a luxury-liner-turned-troopship, cut its escort boat in two, but was not allowed to stop for survivors due to the threat of U-boats. HMS Curacoa sank within 6 minutes, with a loss of 338 men of the 439 on board.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet operates from Japan, and is the largest of the forward-deployed U.S. fleets, with 60 to 70 ships, 300 aircraft, and some 40,000 personnel. It operates at a high operational tempo in some of the most congested shipping lanes in the world. More than half the fleet is at sea at any one time. With a boisterous North Korea testing ICM missiles, underground testing of nuclear devices, and China’s elevated profile in the South China Sea, it is an active theatre of operations. The Fleet’s role also incudes the defence of South Korea. The U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations through disputed waters in the South China Sea.

There is great pressure on the young officers and crew operating these warships, but that is no excuse says Navy leadership. "No matter how tough our operating environment, or how strained our budget, we shouldn't be and cannot be colliding with other ships and running aground," Admiral William Moran, vice chief of naval operations, recently asserted to members of the House Armed Services Committee. "We have allowed standards to drop as the number of certifications has grown," Admiral Moran added, but asserts that it "is not about resourcing; it is about safety and it is about leadership at sea."

The two warships involved in the recent collisions were Areligh Burke-class guided missile destroyers (DDG) – complex and capable warships with a suite of weapons, radars, and combat information systems. The ship class was built around the Aegis Combat System and the SPY-1D radar is a passive electronically scanned array radar. These warships can engage in air defence, missile defence, surface and anti-submarine warfare. They can simultaneously engage and track targets with their complex onboard radar and weapons systems. There are currently 61 of these capable vessels operational in the US Navy – built at a reported cost of U$1.5 Billion.

In addition to a regular work day of the busy crew, the vessel is on a 4-hour navigational watch system. Sleep depravation has been considered during investigations of the collisions, however, at any one time there would be a small number of crew members engaged in navigation, including conning the vessel, look outs and radar watches. It is important to note that both incidents occurred in darkness. The USS Fitzgerald collision off the coast of Japan at 0130 hrs, and USS John S. McCain just before dawn in the Malacca Straits off the coast of Singapore.

At about 0130 hours on 17 June 2017, Fitzgerald collided with ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged container ship measured at 29,060 gross tons and almost 40,000 tons deadweight. Most of Fitzgerald’s crew of about 300 were asleep when the collision occurred, about 56 nautical miles southwest of her home port of Yokosuka, Japan.


11 July 2017 – Tugboats assist the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) as it moves to Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel. (U.S. Navy photo by MCS 1st Class Peter Burghart)

The starboard side of Fitzgerald was seriously damaged. The container ship’s bow penetrated the destroyer’s hull below the waterline, flooding a machinery space, the radio room, and two crew berthing spaces. The captain’s cabin was crushed. Seven crewmen were reported missing after the collision; their bodies were found the next day after rescue workers gained access to flooded compartments. The injured include the ship’s commanding officer and two sailors.

At 0524 a.m. on 21 August 2017, USS John S. McCain was involved in a collision with the Liberian-flagged Alnic MC off the coast of Singapore and Malaysia, east of the Strait of Malacca (its bow penetrated the warship at low speed). Ten U.S. sailors died as a result of that crash.


21 Aug 2017 – Tugboats from Singapore assist the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) as it steers towards Changi Naval Base following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC while underway east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms. Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding. The incident will be investigated. (U.S. Navy photo: MCS 2nd Class Joshua Fulton)

Multiple investigations by the United States Navy, as well as investigations by the U.S. and Japanese Coast Guards, the Japan Transport Safety Board, and the insurers of the Crystal all began within a day of the Fitzgerald collision, and they may not share information with each other.

In addition, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer has launched a civilian-led review to run parallel to the military investigation into the underlying reasons behind a string of navy surface incidents.

Led by Rear-Admiral Brian Fort, the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigated the crew’s operations. The ship’s Commanding Officer, Executive Officer and Chief of the Boat were all subsequently relieved of command.

These are costly incidents. The Fitzgerald repairs are estimated to cost some U$250 million, and she will have to be returned to the United States for complete repairs. This is more than the repair costs of the 2000 terrorist attack on USS Cole. The repairs of USS John S. McCain will likely be the same given the similar nature of the damage.

After the John S. McCain collision, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, ordered a “broader inquiry” into the recent accidents and “to determine any causal factors.” Admiral Richardson also ordered a rare operational pause across the entire Navy. The pause was a one-day, safety stand-down of each operational ship to be done over the course of a couple of weeks and at the discretion of individual commanders to address safety and seamanship concerns.

The Fleet Commander at the time of the accident, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, was relieved of his command due to a “loss of confidence in his ability to command.” This would suggest a systematic problem, but it is still early days in the investigation and it is dangerous to proceed with theory rather than analysis of the actual facts.

It remains unclear why these highly manœuverable warships were in collisions.

It is important to note that most navies, and the U.S. Navy is no exception, do not use Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to signal their location. They run dark. AIS provides a unique vessel transponder code that is used to plot vessel positions in real time between vessels at sea and shore-based government-operated vessel management services. Increasingly, with space-based AIS and real time plotting with primary radar, collisions have been largely avoided even in congested waters. This is in addition to shore-based vessel traffic services which operate in the Malacca Straits and off the Japanese coast that track vessels and have call-in procedures.

The U.S. Navy has suggested that a fatigued bridge crew, poor communication between crew members, and crowded shipping lanes are the most likely culprits in the John S. McCain collision. Media reported an unnamed “Navy Official” stating that the ship lost steering control shortly before the accident but that “it was unclear why the crew couldn’t use the ship’s backup steering systems.”

Many theories exist on the cause of these collisions. The U.S. Navy has made it clear that all possible causes will be examined, including cyber hacking by third parties. Many observers have questioned whether hacking or radar cloaking or an electromagnetic pulse attack may have contributed to these incidents. The investigation will take many forms, and time to look at the facts and the overall managerial systems and training programs. The facts will slowly emerge as these multiple investigations proceed.

Seamanship and safety of life at sea, whether in a commercial vessel or a warship, depends on generations of mariner experience being passed to the next.

Overall, the number of marine incidents have decreased. Technology can improve situation awareness and aid in assisting navigation, but cannot replace the human element – seamanship.

Experienced eyeballs on the bridge will always be preferred to verify radar, radio and electronic aids to navigation. The investigations will no doubt determine that the latest in technology, when combined with experienced seamanship, is the best defence to collisions.

Seamanship remains at the core of all aspects of surface warfare, which has grown in complexity. It is a very hard lesson to relearn with the loss of 17 sailors. The CNO, Admiral Richardson, a submariner, has committed the U.S. Navy to getting this right and learning some hard but important lessons from these tragic collisions.

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Joe Spears of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group has investigated numerous marine incidents for insurers and public agencies over the last 30 years. He assisted Transport Canada Marine Safety in the development and delivery of a national marine investigation course over a decade.
He can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com

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