This time it happened in broad daylight. The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, after transiting the Strait of Malacca en route to Singapore, collided with an oil tanker three times its tonnage just after dawn Monday; 10 sailors went missing, and the warship later limped into port under its own power.
The principal question is obvious: What the hell is going on with the Seventh Fleet? The collision is the second in two months involving Arleigh Burke-class destroyers based in Yokosuka, Japan. Seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald was struck by a hulking freighter in the dead of night. The ship barely survived.
Indeed, the Navy last week released a redacted preliminary report on the Fitzgerald accident. To say that it was critical would be an understatement: it found that the Fitzgerald’s duty-watch standers were effectively comatose at the time of impact, so it was no surprise that the warship’s captain, its executive officer, and its command master chief petty officer were put ashore pending further action.
It’s too early to assign blame for Monday’s tragedy, but it seems likely that another watch-standing failure has occurred. And it’s inescapable that the McCain’s senior leadership will also find itself on the beach in short order.
But it can’t end there. The idea that two Navy destroyers—the legendary greyhounds of the sea, lean, swift, and agile—could be run down and severely damaged by lumbering merchant vessels within two months is preposterously unlikely. Yet it has happened.
Considering the Navy’s current state, it should perhaps not be as surprising as it is. Today’s Navy has far fewer ships than it needs to carry out its assigned duties; its sailors are over-deployed and under-rested; its equipment is often obsolescent, and it is emerging from eight years under the leadership of a Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, whose social-justice priorities almost always took precedence over tradition, morale, training, and operational readiness. Under Mabus, according to the Navy Times, the service prioritized shipbuilding—not a bad thing, necessarily, but it came at a cost. The secretary “made a policy of directing money away from operations and maintenance”—that is, away from training of the sort that clearly could have prevented at least the Fitzgerald tragedy. (What happened on the McCain remains to be seen.) “At the same time,” the editorially independent publication reports, “Mabus pushed hard for major cultural shifts inside the fleet, including the inclusion of women in combat roles in the Navy and Marine Corps, unisex uniforms, gender-neutral ratings titles and opening the services to transgender service members.”
Pushed to the point of obsession, the Navy Times might have added. As a result, the Marine Corps ended the Obama years in a state of near-mutiny over the administration’s insistence on shoehorning women into front-line combat roles despite convincing evidence that they aren’t up to the task. Meantime, the Navy has developed a serious pregnant-sailor problem.
“A record 16 out of 100 Navy women are reassigned from ships to shore duty due to pregnancy,” reports the Washington-based Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group. “That number is up 2 percent from 2015, representing hundreds more who have to cut their deployments short, taxing their units’ manpower, military budgets and combat readiness.”
These aren’t the only problems plaguing the sea service. It drains its budget with preposterously expensive aircraft carriers and the warplanes to go with them. And it insists on continuing with its cost-overrun-plagued shallow-water warship program despite strong evidence that the vessels—now running more than $450 million apiece—are effectively undeployable in combat conditions.
All this helps explain why the Navy’s destroyers keep getting run down on the high seas: there aren’t enough of them and there’s no money to build more, so they’re over-deployed, their sailors exhausted, their crew quality degraded. Such conditions are a recipe not just for mishaps but for unqualified disaster. The McCain, after all, had just completed a so-called “right-of-passage” patrol past the strategically critical, politically explosive Mischief Reef in the South China Sea—an exercise that did not please Beijing.
On Monday, the Navy announced a down-to-bare-metal review of its operations worldwide, and especially in Southeast Asian waters. Military establishments don’t typically excel at self-examination, though, and time will tell whether the brass is serious about getting answers. But even from afar, civilian eyes can tell that the Navy—242 years old and steeped in well-earned glory—is a profoundly troubled institution.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images