Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — Two top Navy officials told lawmakers on Thursday that a plan is underway to ensure safer conditions for sailors, following a series of deadly accidents at sea last year.
The comments, which were made before a joint hearing of two House Armed Services Committee subpanels, come in the wake of two extensive Navy reviews of deadly warship crashes and mishaps last summer.
In all, the Navy lost 20 sailors in major incidents in the Pacific in 2017. Of those deaths, 17 were killed in crashes last summer involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain
“I am here today as the responsible one and accountable for our most valuable resources,” Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer testified. “To fulfill these responsibilities, I am directing change across the fleet and the Marine Corps to correct the issues identified in our analysis of those intolerable events.”
On June 17, the Fitzgerald crashed into a civilian merchant ship about 60 miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan, killing seven sailors. On Aug. 21, the McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore, leaving 10 sailors dead.
“Looking back, 2017 was a year of both triumph and tragedy for our Navy,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, who also testified at Thursday’s hearing.
The fallout from the sailor’s deaths has continued this week. On Tuesday, the Navy said that several officers involved in the Fitzgerald and McCain crashes would face charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel.
Lawmakers said Thursday that concerns remain.
“While I agree with the Navy that officers should be held accountable, I am equally convinced that we need to reform the system that drove these officers to avoid additional incidents and to reduce future ‘normalization of deviation instances,’” said Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces. “I think the Navy has taken a good first step at addressing these systemic areas but there are a multitude of other issues that need to be reviewed to include: organization reform, manning deficiencies, material readiness and serious training reform.”
Soon after the Navy’s deadly incidents last year, the service launched several reviews, including a comprehensive review probing contributing factors at tactical and operational levels and a strategic readiness review examining systemic issues. The Navy released its findings late last year, issuing a series of recommendations that included improving seamanship training, navigational skills and equipment aboard ships, as well as reducing fatigue and stress among sailors and officers.
Richardson reiterated Thursday that the investigations showed the crashes were due in large part to human error and failures of leadership.
Following an operational fleet pause, Richardson said the Navy has upped its required ship certifications, implemented new safety measures for sailors, revised reporting criteria for navigation, steering, propulsion and damage control issues to address equipment problems faster, mandated reporting of near-mishaps and boosted ship communication.
Richardson has also established an oversight board led by Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, to track progress of other new actions yet to be enacted.
“I am responsible for crushing any obstacle preventing our sailors from focusing on warfighting and safely operating at sea,” Richardson said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Wyatt Olson contributed to this story.
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