Part-1: Common reasons for the USS Fitzgerald, the USS John McCain, and the USS Lake Champlain accidents
‘Everything starts and ends with leadership. Nothing else we accomplish, no other priority we pursue, is of much consequence if we do not have sound and effective leadership in place to enact it. We all have a responsibility to develop our own leadership potential and that of the Sailors’.
- Admiral Michael G Mullen, USN
The US Navy is a powerful navy, both in terms of sophisticated ships and highly trained navigators. When three of its ships collide in separate incidents, within months of each other, it’s a matter of concern for all users of the sea.
Just as we pass the first anniversary of these collisions, I will be sharing my own analysis of these collisions in a series of articles. The aim of this study is to assess what the commercial shipping industry can learn from these accidents.
First up, we must appreciate the transparency of the US Navy in sharing their findings externally, and look at their own conclusions regarding the role of its own ships in these accidents, in their own words. In the below table, I’ve mapped common findings from the three reports.
|USS Fitzgerald||USS John McCain||USS Lake Champlain|
|Collided with the ACX Crystal off Japan on 21st June 2017 with the loss of seven lives.||Collided with the Alnic off Singapore on 21st August 2017 with the loss of ten lives.||Collided with fishing vessel Nam Yang 502 on 9th May 2017 in the Sea of Japan. Thankfully, there were no major injuries.|
Failure to adhere to sound navigation practice.
One of them being that the ship was not operated at a safe speed appropriate to the number of other ships in the immediate vicinity.
|Failure to execute basic watch-standing practices.|
|The officers possessed an unsatisfactory level of knowledge of the International Rules of the Nautical Road.||Failure to follow the International Nautical Rules of the Road, a system of rules to govern the maneuvering of vessels when risk of collision is present.||Shipboard training programs regarding the International Rules of the Nautical Road were ineffective, and the officers possessed insufficient knowledge of these Rules.|
Failure to execute basic watch standing practices.
One of them being that the watch-standers performing physical look out duties did so only on FITZGERALD’s port side, not on the starboard side where the three ships were present with risk of collision.
Failure to adhere to sound navigation practices.
One of them being that they failed to make proper use of lookouts
|Watch team members were not familiar with basic radar fundamentals, impeding effective use.||Watch standers operating the steering and propulsion systems had insufficient proficiency and knowledge of the systems.||Watch team members were not familiar with basic radar fundamentals, impeding effective use.|
|Failure to properly use available navigation tools.||Failure to properly use available navigation tools.|
|Failure to respond deliberately and effectively when in extremis.||Loss of situational awareness in response to mistakes in the operation of the JOHN S MCCAIN’s steering and propulsion system, while in the presence of a high density of maritime traffic.||Failure to respond deliberately and effectively when in extremis. The bridge team was inexperienced and had not discussed or trained for emergency actions.|
|Failure to plan for safety.||Leadership failed to provide the appropriate amount of supervision in constructing watch assignments for the evolution by failing to assign sufficient experienced officers to duties.|
|FITZGERALD’s approved navigation track did not account for, nor follow, the Vessel Traffic Separation Schemes in the area.|
|Supervisors and watch team members on the bridge did not communicate information and concerns to one another as the situation developed.||The bridge team and Combat Information Center team did not communicate effectively.|
|The Officer of the Deck, responsible for the safe navigation of the ship, did not call the Commanding Officer on multiple occasions when required by Navy procedures||The Commanding Officer decided not to station the Sea and Anchor detail when appropriate, despite recommendations from the Navigator, Operations Officer and Executive Officer.||The Officer of the Deck, responsible for the safe navigation of the ship, did not call the XO on multiple occasions when required by the CO’s Standing Orders.|
|Key supervisors in the Combat Information Center failed to comprehend the complexity of the operating environment and the number of commercial vessels in the area.|
|In several instances, individual members of the watch teams identified incorrect information or mistakes by others, yet failed to proactively and forcefully take corrective action, or otherwise highlight or communicate their individual concerns.|
|Key supervisors and operators accepted difficulties in operating radar equipment due to material faults as routine rather than pursuing solutions to fix them.|
|The command leadership did not foster a culture of critical self-assessment. Following a near-collision in mid-May, leadership made no effort to determine the root causes and take corrective actions in order to improve the ship’s performance.||Watchstanders did not maintain proper logs, and supervisors failed to recognize that junior watchstanders were not maintaining the surface contact log as required.|
|The command leadership was not aware that the ship’s daily standards of performance had degraded to an unacceptable level.|
|The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.||The crew was ultimately unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training.|
|Principal watchstanders including the Officer of the Deck, in charge of the safety of the ship, and the Conning Officer on watch at the time of the collision did not attend the Navigation Brief the afternoon prior. This brief is designed to provide maximum awareness of the risks involved in the evolution.|
|Leadership failed to provide the appropriate amount of supervision in constructing watch assignments for the evolution by failing to assign sufficient experienced officers to duties.|
|Senior officers failed to provide input and back up to the Commanding Officer when he ordered ship control transferred between two different stations in proximity to heavy maritime traffic.|
|Senior officers and bridge watchstanders did not question the Helm’s report of a loss of steering nor pursue the issue for resolution.|
|If JOHN S MCCAIN had sounded at five short blasts or made Bridge-to-Bridge VHF hails or notifications in a timely manner, then it is possible that a collision might not have occurred.||LAKE CHAMPLAIN did not sound signals with the ship’s whistle to indicate turns to port or starboard.|
The US Navy’s analysis and Admiral Michael G Mullen’s own quote confirm what I mention in my book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas- that ‘all accidents are, at some level or the other, failures of leadership at sea’. Subsequent articles will examine these collisions one by one, and possible solutions. Watch this space.
The article pays respect to the mariners who lost their lives in these tragedies. One of the ways to honour their memory is to ensure such accidents never happen again to any mariner, anywhere.
#GoldenStripesLeadership #LessonsFromSea #Mariners #CaptainParani #MaritimeLeadership