McCain rips into Navy leaders over 'unacceptable' ship collisions

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday ripped into Navy leaders for what he called an “unacceptable” series of ship collisions this summer that caused the deaths of 17 sailors.

“It is simply unacceptable for U.S. Navy ships to run aground or collide with other ships — and to have four such incidents in the span of seven months is truly alarming,” McCain said in opening remarks during a committee hearing to address four ship accidents this year.

“As leaders of our Navy, you must do better.”

On June 17, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship southwest of Japan, killing seven sailors. The top three leaders of the Fitzgerald were all fired following the incident.

A few months later, on Aug. 20, 10 more sailors were killed when the USS John S. McCain was struck by a Liberian oil tanker east of the straits of Malacca and Singapore. 

Many family members whose relatives were among the 17 sailors killed were in attendance as honored guests of the hearing, and McCain read aloud the names of the deceased.

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“The lives of the 17 sailors lost in the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions were priceless, and I mourn their loss,” he said. “These preventable incidents also come with a very real price tag in terms of the cost of these to taxpayers.”

The current estimate to repair the two destroyers is roughly $600 million.

McCain also criticized the Navy leaders for not heeding reviews completed in 2010 and 2015 that said dwindling training and maintenance for overseas ships could put sailors in harms way.

“Many of the issues we are discussing today have been known to Navy leaders for years. How do we explain that, admiral?” he asked Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson.

Richardson replied that while there is “no explanation to reconcile those two observations,” the Navy has “not been sitting idle” and has made steady investments in training, manpower and maintenance to close a readiness gap.

The fatal crashes came after two other incidents earlier this year. The USS Lake Champlain hit a South Korean fishing boat in May, and the USS Antietam ran aground while trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay in January.

The Navy is in the midst of two service-wide investigation and safety reviews to find operations and training issues, but a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found widespread safety and readiness problems with service ships in the Pacific.

The report, released after the four incidents this year, found more than one-third of training certifications for the Navy's cruisers and destroyers based in Japan had expired in June.

Richardson said some of the blame was on Congress, saying that lawmakers provide “constrained funding levels and budget uncertainty” while still demanding a high operational tempo, forcing Navy leaders to skimp on training.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who also testified, added that additional Navy training and requirements without the corresponding funding were like putting rocks into a rucksack.

“No one is taking a rock out and the rucksack is getting pretty damn heavy,” he said.

GAO official John Pendleton, meanwhile, said reductions in crew sizes have led to sailors working upward of 100 hours a week.

But Richardson also allowed that Navy commanders are ultimately responsible for the string of accidents.

“If you only give us one ship, it's our obligation to operate that ship safely and effectively. And so ... while [constrained funding] makes it harder, that is not — in no way an excuse for the performance that led to these four incidents,” he said. “I own this problem."

Near the end of the hearing, McCain called for immediate changes to lower the 100-hour week, contending that “it doesn’t take a study” to know such working conditions would strain sailors.

“Why not declare a stop, a halt to it, right now?” McCain said. “I appreciate all the studies you’ve ordered and all the assessments and all that, but ... if somebody’s working 100 hours a week, over a period of time they’re going to make mistakes, any manager can tell you that.

“Fire a few people, that’s fine, but ... I’d also like to see some immediate common sense actions.”