French fur trappers reported in the sixteenth century that the St. Lawrence River freezes hard in the winter. You’d think that word might have filtered through to Washington by now. But the U.S. Navy sent one of its newest warships, the USS Little Rock, to Montreal in December—where it now sits trapped in thick ice, probably until mid-March, marking an inauspicious beginning of a new year for a sea service coming off a horrendous 2017. Indeed, news of the Little Rock’s humiliation arrived with word that the Navy has referred the commanding officers of two destroyers involved in fatal high-seas collisions last summer for prosecution on charges including criminal negligence.
That nimble ships like the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain could be run down at sea by lumbering cargo vessels three times their size—the McCain in broad daylight—is outrageous. Seventeen sailors died in these collisions, which occurred within weeks of one another and followed other, nonfatal accidents involving warships homeported at Yokosuka, Japan. The Navy subsequently termed the Fitzgerald and McCain incidents as “avoidable”—a substantial understatement, given the circumstances—and began a disciplinary process that turned the Seventh Fleet’s command structure on its head. Dozens of officers and senior enlisted personnel have been relieved of their duties. Most recently, the admiral in charge of the sea service’s entire surface operation was fired.
Whether all this will change anything remains to be seen. The accidents revealed a maritime service so dysfunctional that it seems unable to get out of its own way, let alone to execute its duties in an increasingly threatening world. One negative official report, however scathing, plus a few high-stakes courtroom dramas won’t fix that.
Defense Secretary James Mattis seems to have embarked on a clean sweep-down of the Navy, a fighting force capable of great things but institutionally underfunded, operationally overextended and—during the Obama administration—fixated on policies that stressed gender integration and other progressive goals at the expense of basic seamanship. Obama administration Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s efforts to bend 240 years of naval tradition to contemporary social-justice goals were enormously disruptive to an institution heavily dependent on cultural continuity. His insistence that women be integrated into Marine Corps infantry units augurs tragic consequences (unless the Trump administration reverses the policy). Mabus’s obsessions distracted from the business at hand: tending to America’s maritime security needs by dealing directly with the debilitating effects of more than a decade of low-intensity but costly warfare, budget sequestrations, and a resultant decline in preparedness and operational efficiency.
Retired admiral James O. Ellis, writing last month for the Hoover Institution, summed up the consequences succinctly, if bloodlessly: “The Navy has often found itself in a downward trend of extended deployments and training and maintenance reductions which have contributed to mishaps, material casualties, readiness failings, and, in turn, further shortfalls.” Among the shortfalls, of course, must be counted the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions. Both incidents, the Navy admits, were driven by heavy operational demands that resulted in inadequate crew training and incompetent seamanship. With only 275 ships in commission—far short of the 355 it deems necessary—the Navy has been hard-pressed to meet the challenges posed by an expanding Chinese fleet and an increasingly provocative Russian maritime service.
“Over the past 25 years the number of ships in our Navy decreased by nearly half,” writes retired admiral Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations. “Although the fleet is significantly smaller, the expectation remains for the Navy to be present in areas of strategic importance, to project power when prompt, assured access to land bases is problematic, and to persistently defend our interests and those of our allies and partners. Today, that means twice the percentage of the fleet is deployed than was at the height of the Cold War.”
That would be a formidable challenge under any circumstances, but the Navy’s continuing inability to control ship-construction costs contributes substantially to its problems. Some of this may be the price of maintaining maritime supremacy in the twenty-first century—an imperative, as China seeks to turn the South China Sea into its own lake—but the Navy needs self-discipline if it is going to build an adequate fleet.
Meantime, the human costs of an undersized fleet continue to grow. Fewer ships mean longer deployments, leading to high-profile accidents caused by inadequate training and poor leadership. Unreasonably long cruises also depress crew morale and exacerbate personnel-retention problems. The Navy has waived physical fitness standards for tens of thousands of sailors. Operationally, the consequences have ranged from the bizarre (a captain ordering a sailor to be confined on bread and water) to the sadly predictable (a black sailor fabricating a “hate crime,” whereupon an aircraft carrier’s entire crew was lectured on “racism”), to the tragic—fatal drug overdoses at a West Coast naval base and an onboard suicide at Naval Submarine Base New London. How many marriages have been torn asunder from extended deployments can only be guessed at.
Retired captain Kevin Eyer, who commanded the cruisers Shiloh and Chancellorsville, has doubts about the basic competence of the average sailor. “Navigation and seamanship, these are the fundamental capabilities which every surface warfare officer should have,” he writes, “but I suspect if called to war, we’ll be required to do a lot more than safely navigate the Singapore strait,” where the McCain collision occurred. “If our surface forces are unable to successfully execute these fundamental blocking and tackling tasks, how can it possibly be expected that they are also able to do the much more complex warfighting tasks?”
The need for accountability—and simple justice—demand that specific responsibility for last summer’s collisions be assigned. Lives were lost. But getting an answer to Eyer’s question is even more fundamental.
Happily, the Navy now is under sound civilian leadership. Defense Secretary Mattis, a former Marine Corps general, may have difficulty marshalling the resources needed to put the sea service back on course. But there is no doubt that he grasps the urgent need for deep reform. A nation with global interests, America has always needed a strong navy. It still does.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy via Getty Images