A Missed Warning on the McCain?

A 2015 report highlights the stress on ships and crews based abroad.


The USS John S. McCain, with a damaged hull section, docked at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Aug. 21.
The USS John S. McCain, with a damaged hull section, docked at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Aug. 21. PHOTO: GRADY FONTANA/ZUMA PRESS

The U.S. Navy has found and identified 10 sailors who died last month when a guided-missile destroyer crashed into a tanker in the Pacific, and one service member hadn’t reached his 21st birthday. An investigation continues, though a 2015 report that received little attention compounds questions about whether the military has the resources to equip sailors for war.

The USS John S. McCain’s collision happened in a busy shipping lane near Singapore, and several theories have been offered. One is a cyber attack, though there is no obvious evidence so far. A Chinese newspaper pounced to suggest that it’s unsafe for the Navy to operate in the area, and how convenient for Beijing’s purposes. The Navy has released few details but relieved the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, who was scheduled to step down within weeks.

The McCain incident follows a fatal crash earlier this summer involving the USS Fitzgerald, which cost seven lives and the ship’s commanding and executive officers their posts. A ship collided with a South Korean fishing boat in May. The USS Antietam somehow ran aground in Tokyo Bay in January; the Navy fired the commanding officer in that incident, too. The common denominator is the Pacific, and many ships in the Seventh Fleet region are “forward deployed.” The McCain, Fitzgerald and Antietam are all home-ported in Japan.

The question is how so many events could unfold in a year in one command, and a 2015 Government Accountability Office report now regrettably looks prescient. The report describes how ships home-ported abroad have weathered particularly tough deterioration in recent years, while budgets have tightened and the size of the force has decreased. The Navy relies on an overseas presence that allows ships to show up anywhere within days or even hours. This is great for deterrence.

But this requires a rapid tempo of operations. GAO found that ships home-ported in the U.S. spent 69 days a year deployed under way, on average, between 2004 and 2012. Ships based overseas in places like Spain or Japan spent 111 days under way. U.S.-based ships are supposed to spend about 40% of their 27-month cycle deployed or available, with the rest in maintenance or training.

Japan-based cruisers and destroyers, on the other hand, are slated to spend 67% of their two year cycle deployed or ready to go, and only 33% in maintenance. The accruing deferred maintenance, the report notes, could shorten a ship’s life, even as the Navy has too few ships.

Unlike U.S.-based ships, the planning cycle for ships based in Japan also does “not include a dedicated training period” that allows crews to hone their skills for competency at sea. The quick turnarounds create what GAO calls a “train on the margins” approach. This means “crews train while under way” or sometimes in the few days in between.

It isn’t clear what the Navy has done since the report’s findings, and the point is not to blame the dysfunction entirely on the service. Funding and priorities are dictated by 535 politicians in Congress. The military has been subject to erratic budgets that make building new ships or other large projects difficult and more costly. Many of the politicians who complain about misspent money at the Pentagon have created a much more expensive mess.

The armed forces have an honorable tradition of relieving top brass after a failure, and more government institutions could benefit from such accountability. As for President Trump and Congress, perhaps this autumn they can take a break from feuding about a border wall—and pass a more stable appropriations bill to give American sailors the equipment and training they need for their crucial missions.

Appeared in the September 9, 2017, print edition.

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