Two collisions: What’s going
on in the Pacific?
One marine tragedy involving the
collision of a naval surface warship
with a commercial merchant vessel is a curiosity. Two such ocean
collisions in a short time span is
The U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer is
among the world’s most modern
warships. It’s packed with sensors,
advanced navigation equipment,
and other technologies designed
to keep the vessel safe even in
the most difficult maritime conditions. Nevertheless, in the course of
only nine weeks, two Burke-class
destroyers operating in the Western
Pacific have collided with big, lumbering cargo ships more than three
times their size, leading to death and
injury to U.S. military personnel.
On 17 June, the destroyer USS
Fitzgerald (DDG 62) collided with the
Philippine-flagged container ship
MV ACX Crystal off the east coast
of Japan. Then, on 21 Aug., the USS
John S. McCain (DDG 56) collided
with the oil and chemical tanker
ALNIC MC in the Straits of Malacca
Each of the cargo vessels displaces
about 30,000 tons of water and is
longer than two football fields.
They don’t move quickly, and take
a long time to turn. The Burke-class
destroyer, on the other hand, displaces about 9,000 tons of water, is
509 feet long, and can move faster
than 30 knots. It is maneuverable and
can turn 180 degrees in a minute.
The big question is why did these
collisions happen, and why should
there be two similar accidents involving similar vessels in the same region
of the world so closely together?
The answer is unclear, for now.
A preliminary investigation of the
June collision claims the accident
was the Fitzgerald’s fault. That
mishap killed seven and injured as
many as 300, including the captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson. Benson
and two others in the ship’s senior
leadership were relieved of duty,
as were Executive Officer Cmdr.
Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty
Officer Brice Baldwin.
Suffice it to say that what happened aboard the Fitzgerald was
really bad, with serious breakdowns
in the chain of command and defi-ciencies of seamanship. Those
relieved of duty likely are looking
at the ends of their naval careers.
Mistakes can and do happen, but
twice in two months? Speculation for
the accidents has ranged from intentional ramming to cyber attacks on
the destroyers’ navigation systems.
Neither has been proven.
We’re not sure yet what happened
aboard the destroyer McCain. It’s too
soon for any kind of investigation,
and the latest news reports list 10 of
the McCain’s crew as missing, with at
least one of them dead.
The day after the McCain colli-
sion, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin was
relieved of duty as commander of
the U.S. 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka,
Japan. The McCain’s collision with
the ALNIC MC in the Straits of
Malacca near Singapore happened in
some of the most congested waters
on Earth. Virtually all the world’s
commercial ship traffic passing
between the South China Sea and
the Indian Ocean go through there.
Still, naval surface warfare officers
in command aboard the McCain are
well trained in operating through
congested and dangerous waters.
What happened was far from routine.
Maritime accidents like these have
big consequences; it doesn’t involve
just a bunch of big dents and scrapes.
The bulbous bows of the MV ACX
Crystal and the ALNIC MC pierced
the hulls of the Fitzgerald and McCain
below the water line, causing massive
flooding below decks; it’s a testa-
ment to the skill of damage-control
crews that the ships remained afloat.
Damage below the water lines of
these two destroyers was signifi-
cant, and deaths came by drowning.
U.S. Chief of Naval Operations
Adm. John Richardson ordered a
pause in naval operations to review
maritime practices in the Pacific.
We’ll see what the operational pause
reveals. Let’s hope the Navy can
make some changes to prevent these
accidents from happening again. Í