Senate Armed Services Committee members were at times frustrated as they questioned the top Navy leaders Tuesday over a series of ship collisions resulting in severe damage and deaths.

This was the second hearing this month inquiring into recent naval collisions, with the first being on the House side (Defense Daily, Sept. 7).

Richard V. Spencer, Secretary of the Navy. Photo: U.S. Navy.
Richard V. Spencer, Secretary of the Navy. Photo: U.S. Navy.

The USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, collided with a commercial vessel east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore on Aug. 21, and in June the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collided with a merchant container ship near Yokosuka, Japan. Both events caused severe damage to the destroyers and the death of a number of crew members (Defense Daily, Aug. 21).

Committee Chairman John (R-Ariz.) revealed the current estimate for repairs to the damaged ships is about $600 million but noted additional costs in unexpected deployments for other ships to meet operational requirements.

He pressured Navy officials on how Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviews as well as a 2010 fleet review panel have not been effectively implemented or maintained, even though they outlined problems in training, maintenance backlogs, and other issues for shop homeported overseas. McCain also said it was “unacceptable” that the GAO reported 37 percent of cruisers and destroyers based in Japan had expired certification, as of June.

Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer admitted “we have a problem in the Navy and we’re going to fix it.”

Spencer appeared with Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, and John Pendleton, director of defense force structure and readiness issues at the GAO

While he reiterated the various investigations and reviews underway, with a focus on the CNO’s comprehensive review and the secretary’s strategic review, Spencer said they are not waiting to make changes.

“Make no mistake, we are not waiting 60 days or 90 days to make adjustments … We are not lying idle and I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, we are committed.”

In response to questions about expired certification, Richardson admitted that almost every forward-deployed ship has some element of their warfare certification expired. However, he said, compared some of these issues to an expired driver’s license where one knows how to drive but does not have the time to schedule a certification test.

In those lower level cases, Richardson said it is relatively easy to mitigate the issue temporarily by not assigning that ship that kind of mission. However, in the last two years in particular certifications for forces based in Japan have dropped “precipitously.” That should have been brought to Navy leadership’s attention before now, he said.

Richardson noted the Navy is taking some immediate action to prevent future collisions, particularly activating their automatic identification system, the AIS, when transiting higher traffic areas. He said the Navy has had an “inflated sense of operational security” by keeping it switched off even in busy shipping lanes.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) bluntly asked how a $1 billion destroyer does not know when a large commercial vessel is about to run into it. “How can this possibly happen?”

Visible damage to the USS John S. McCain’s (DDG-56) port side following a collision with the Alnic MC near the Straights of Malacca and Singapore. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released.
Visible damage to the USS John S. McCain’s (DDG-56) port side following a collision with the Alnic MC near the Straights of Malacca and Singapore. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released.

The CNO said the investigations will look into the precise sequence of events but noted the Navy destroyers are designed to have a lower radar cross-section. This imposes an additional burden on the crew to know it is a low observable vessel that may appear much smaller than the destroyer it is on radar screens.

Richardson said his comprehensive review is due in mid- to late-October and will be “crystal clear” on the causes of the mishaps. The strategic review is due to be completed 30 days later. While noting this aggressive schedule, the CNO said they are not just trying to finish a rushed process.

Richardson also told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that so far there is “still no evidence of any kind” of cyber intrusion/tampering being related to the collisions.

Separately, McCain revealed the Navy has issued 20 reprimands to officers beyond relieving two commanding officers, one Commander, one Captain, and more recently the squadron, two-star strike group, and a three-star fleet commander.

The CNO confirmed lack of sleep issues will be part of the comprehensive review after Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) asked about reports of sleep deprivation being pervasive among surface warfare sailors.

Pendleton said the Navy typically expects sailors to work 80 plus hour weeks to start with and that issues have crept up on them. He added many focus groups bring up the overworked/sleep deprivation issue and that some sailors even wish to have only a 100-hour work weeks.

McCain closed the hearing in frustration over this point.

McCain asked if it is true that some sailors work 100 hour weeks. Richardson said he would not deny that and they are doing workday style studies, particularly for the DDG destroyers, and are starting to respond by supplementing the crews.

“It doesn’t take a study to understand what 100 hours a week does to people. Why not declare a stop, a halt right now?” McCain asked.

McCain said they have to “use common sense” and take immediate action that will relieve the strain of sailors in the near-term. Any manager will tell you that people working 100-hour weeks are going to make mistakes, he added.

“You could make the change tomorrow. Fire some people, fine. What we would like to see is some changes.”