Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Cruiser Runs Aground

Many of you have seen reports in the news of the grounding of the USS PORT ROYAL (CG 73) off the coast of Hawaii. Some of you have emailed me privately about the event for my thoughts, and so I'll share some. For those of you new to the site, I was at one time a naval officer, and I commanded a destroyer from 2004-2006. I have no particular insight into the nature of this grounding, I do not know anyone serving on the ship, and I know only what I've read in the open press.

A couple of things:
1) This is a horrible thing, and there can never and will never be a satisfying explanation for it. At the end of the day, an error chain laden with human shortcomings, indecision, and poor decisions... mixed perhaps with some equipment malfunction, will be blamed.

2) The Captain is at fault, period, end of story. In a world in which corporate CEO's earn fabulous bonuses presiding over wreckages of public corporations, the Navy remains a place where blame is affixed and responsibility taken. In most cases, the Navy does the right thing and relieves the Captain of command. I would be shocked if it does not here. We can wring our hands and tut-tut about the fallibility of human beings, the unfairness of the sanction, a myriad of contributing factors that our fairness and justice seeking society would bring forth to mitigate the Captain's culpability, but they do not wash. Command of a ship is special and peculiar thing, and Joseph Conrad put it best in my mind:


By Joseph Conrad
Only a seaman realizes to what extent an entire ship reflects the personality and ability of one individual, her Commanding Officer. To a landsman, this is not understandable, and sometimes it is difficult for us to comprehend - but it is so.

A ship at sea is a distant world in herself and in consideration of the protracted and distant operations of the fleet units, the Navy must place a great power, responsibility, and trust in the hands of those leaders chosen for command.

In each ship there is one man who, in the hour of emergency of peril at sea, can turn to no other man. There is one who, alone, is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. He is the Commanding Officer. He is the ship.

This is the most difficult and demanding assignment in the Navy. There is not an instant during his tour as Commanding Officer that he can escape the grasp of command responsibility. His privileges in view of his obligations are almost ludicrously small; nevertheless, command is the spur which has given the Navy its great leaders.

It is a duty which most richly deserves the highest time honored title of the seafaring world… "CAPTAIN"

3) Any suggestion that the single sanction (run aground and you're gone) creates timidity and fear among Navy commanding officers did not serve alongside the great men and women I did in command. Does it sharpen our focus, does it drive you to relentlessly drive your crew for excellence? Yep. But it does not create fear.

4) Anyone who takes command of a ship does so knowing they are one bad navigation fix away from the end of a career. It is not a surprise, it is not viewed as unfair. It is one of the very few downsides to the privilege of commanding a warship for the people of the United States, and naval officers line up for the prospect taking on that responsibility.

5) The ship had just come out of several months in the shipyard getting work done. It was on its sea trials, and it was the first day underway. This would have been a particularly strenuous day, as the skills associated with seafaring do atrophy, and the crew would more than likely have had to work hard with shorebased trainers and imaginative scenario training in order to keep their skills.

6) There is at least one report that suggests the ship had come to where it was in order to conduct small boat operations in order to move ship riders ashore. This is a fairly routine operation for Navy ships (especially ships who are conducting sea trials with numerous shipyard and shore-based personnel onboard), but any time you move into piloting waters, increased vigilance is required.

7) The question that will ultimately be asked is why were they where they shouldn't have been? What breakdowns were there? How often were they taking fixes? Were the fixes correct? Was the Combat Information Center taking its own fixes and comparing them with the bridge? Had the navigation team received any refresher training while the ship was inport? Was the bridge relying on electronic means and ignoring manual plots? Was the bridge ignoring electronic means of navigation and relying on manual (human) plots? Was there too much hullabaloo on the bridge, given that the Battle Group Commander (Admiral) was onboard, and the ship was moving into position to launch boats? Did the Captain (and XO and Navigator and Officer of the Deck and Junior Officer of the Deck) lose focus on what was REALLY important--the navigational position of the ship--and begin to think about the upcoming boat operation (in which perhaps, he would be transporting his boss ashore)? The Navy is superb at the investigations that follow accidents like this, and I assure you, wardrooms full of officers across the fleet will deconstruct this accident and talk about how to keep it from happening to them.

I close with something I've printed here before, after another Navy accident where my opinion was solicited. It is the text of an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1952 after the collision of the USS HOBSON and the USS WASP in which 176 men died (including the CO of the HOBSON). I find it as relevant today as it was then; perhaps more:

"One night past some 30,000 tons of ships went hurtling at each other through the darkness. When they had met, 2,000 tons of ship and 176 men lay at the bottom of the sea in a far off place."

"Now comes the cruel business of accountability. Those who were there, those who are left from those who were there, must answer how it happened and whose was the error that made it happen."

"It is a cruel business because it was no wish to destruction that killed this ship and its 176 men; the accountability lies with good men who erred in judgment under stress so great that it is almost its own excuse. Cruel, because no matter how deep the probe, it cannot change the dead, because it cannot probe deeper than remorse."

"And it is even more cruel still because all around us in other places we see the plea accepted that what is done is done beyond discussion, and that for good men in their human errors there should be afterwards no accountability."

"Everywhere else we are told how inhuman it is to submit men to the ordeal of answering for themselves; to haul them before committees and badger them with questions as to where they were and what they were doing while the ship of state careened from one course to another."

"This probing into the sea seems more merciless because everywhere else we have abandoned accountability. What is done is done and why torture men with asking them afterwards, why?........"

"We are told men should no longer be held accountable for what they do as well as for what they intend. To err is not only human, it absolves responsibility."

"Everywhere else, that is, except on the sea. On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability."

"This accountability is not for the intentions but for the deed. The captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him set the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done. He cannot escape...."

"It is cruel, this accountability of good and well-intentioned men. But the choice is that or an end of responsibility and finally as the cruel scene has taught, an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do."

"And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into uncontrollable derelicts."


Anonymous said...

I believe it was not the Battle Group Commander that was aboard, reportedly, it was RDML Dixon Smith, a SWO who is the Area Commander. Dixon is a superb Naval Officer and hopefully, his career is not going up in smoke from this episode.

Mudge said...

Nicely written, CW.

Anonymous said...

I can fully concur. The USS Robert K. Huntington DD781 was in a collision with an English freighter in Chesapeak Bay, returning to port in Norfolk, at night, full moon, without one casualty. The Skipper was relieved of duty and reduced in rank. The radar was in full operation with the special sea detail in place under normal conditions. The freighter was at fault but the Huntington's Captain paid the penalty. This happened in 1952 with your Daddy aboard as a fireman striker.

Fallen said...

A tragic accident indeed, and there is no chance the CO will survive. I can only imagine how he must feel today.

Bryan, I’d be curious about your thoughts as to what this incident has to say about the state of SWO training, given the recent debate on this subject within Proceedings and the Navy blogosphere (acknowledging that we have yet to learn what specifically led to the grounding). You may accuse me of being a Anglophile (justifiably), but the RN’s system of training bridge officers may have prevented such a mistake. I am in the training pipeline to be a XO and Navigator myself, and I’m frankly skeptical that the Navy’s two week navigation course will equip me to do the job.


The Conservative Wahoo said...

James (and I don't mean you, Dear Old Dad),

I'm honored that you stopped by the site today, and I hope you'll make it a common occurrence.

Two things preclude me from giving you a very satisfying answer to your question. The first, though I share your Anglophile leanings, I am unfamiliar with the way they train deck officers, and cannot speculate as to what such training might add.

Second, I am not aware of the circumstances of this incident. Could there have been a catastrophic loss of all power and the ship drifted into the shoal? Who knows. I doubt it, but I suppose that could have happened.

What I am qualified to say is what the state of Surface Warfare training was when I commanded, and though there is a cottage industry of voices who believe we've gone to hell in a handbasket, I believe the state of training extant when I was in command sufficiently provided the skills and tools necessary to keep from running aground in the vicinity of your homeport. I will speculate that the state of training available today is equal to what it was then. With the exception of a catastrophic loss of control systems, I cannot conceive of how this accident occurred in a manner that would stress the current state of training. The investigation will show an accumulating series of errors, indecision, bad decision, equipment mis-alignmnet, failure to follow procedures, failure for procedures to be know the drill. While I continue to believe we insufficiently train our new Ensigns for the fleet, this is a cruiser with a Captain who has already commanded, senior department heads and presumably a sharp XO (as we all know, the sharpest XO's are found on cruisers :); there will be no acceptable excuse for this accident.

Anonymous said...


I concur with everything you wrote. Believe me I know. The CO is accountable, and we all know the end result of this. But as you said you take Command, you know the rules. He may or may not have been able to do anything about this. He may have been given bad info. However as the CO you do not get to make excuses, you say AYE AYE and move on. The Navy will survive this; I just hope that not too much blood is demanded; however as the event drags on the butcher’s bill is sure to climb.

Sail Safe


The Conservative Wahoo said...

Well said Z.

Unknown said...

#3 Relentless Excellence. Perfect. I've been watching this unfold on the local news and it still makes me a little nauseous even completely removed from the situation. I feel for the captain, but I also feel for the navigator, the department heads, and anyone else tearing themselves up knowing they had anything to do with ruining their captain's career.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Rebecca--perfectly put--nausea is exactly what I feel when I see pictures of that great ship aground and think about that crew's collective state of mind right now. Thank you for highlighting "relentless excellence". We were good--damn good--shipmate.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Oh, and Rebecca--lest I forget--we were also damn lucky.

Anonymous said...

Bryan -

I echo previous thoughts - very nicely said.

Reportedly she was pulled off a couple hours ago on the 4th attempt. 3 flag officers in attendance.

Anonymous said...

To set the record straight, RDML Smith was not aboard at he time of the incident. He went out the following day as the OSC.

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