OPINION | Crew rotation could be a critical factor in reducing Navy's spate of collisions
© Getty Images

Transiting from the open seas to a constricted and highly trafficked sea lane for the final approach to a busy port is a demanding seamanship task, if for no other reason than you are operating in narrow, restricted waters.

It is intensified when done in the dark early morning hours as scores of large “time-is-money” merchant ships hurry for an early entry or exit.

The task is magnified when approaching a “super port,” such as Singapore, which is notorious for ship congestion.

ADVERTISEMENT

Manned by a crew that can average less than 20 years of age, the USS John S. McCain had recently completed a Freedom of Navigation transit near a disputed reef in the South China Sea as Chinese warships shadowed it. Days later, the crew approached Singapore in the early morning darkness, where basic seamanship skills would be challenged by a multitude of close-by merchant ships.

 

Individual radar “blips” approach from many directions. They represent merchant ships, and can begin to merge as they come closer together in the narrow sea lane approach. At the same time, what are meant to be helpful lighting configurations on ships (so that others can judge their course) can become confusing, particularly when the lights fail to conform to the established nautical rules of the road.

Although it's still unknown exactly why John S. McCain and one of the merchant ships tragically collided, it is in such a situation that there, but for the grace of God, goes many a commanding officer, including me.

The captain, given more authority and responsibility than any other crewman onboard, must be held accountable for what occurs, no matter the challenge – for who would ever trust an officer that is above accountability for what befalls a ship, despite his or her good intentions? In this case, the fleet commander has been relieved after four collisions or groundings occurred in his Western Pacific command this year.

To those who might say officers or crew “are not like they used to be,” I disagree. These are some of the finer officers and crew we have had sail our ships. In addition, the crews receive better training in basic seamanship skills than ever before, such as simulators that provide training drills as though a ship is actually entering port.

But recall that “near wartime tasking” of the John S. McCain in the South China Sea: During the work-up phase to prepare a ship for a long deployment, the crew of a multi-mission ship crams much more multi-training into its work-up than seafarers did 10 to 15 years ago. Anti-terrorism exercises against small boats and helicopters are now combined with national missions of ballistic missile defense; training in new cyberspace operations integrate with more traditional, but more technologically advanced, exercises in anti-submarine, surface and air defense warfare. And more to come: China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles are on the horizon, and its stealthy diesel boats can be almost undetectable.

When deployed, these diverse, advanced warfare operations can unwittingly take on a higher priority than more routine seamanship tasks. It’s understandable if you’ve been there, because even in such narrow and congested waters, one’s wartime mission never recedes.

The Navy’s recent operational “stand down” to re-focus on the import of this basic seamanship priority is therefore the correct first step, albeit perhaps belated. A ship’s attention to basic seamanship skills can atrophy after the intense warfare readiness work-up period followed by an equally intense operational tasking once deployed.

But what about the long term, as new warfare missions continue to be crammed into work-ups for crew readiness once deployed alongside maintenance requirements? Equally important for the long term is the Navy’s operational tempo; the number of ships deployed overseas has remained fairly constant since the global war on terror began in 2001, even as the overall number of ships has declined by about 20 percent.

Preserving a crew’s attention to seamanship while deployed is what matters most in preventing these accidents, not the ship’s overall readiness. Therefore, the Navy should take a lesson from the Army: Its service members trained on tanks and vehicles here at home, but then flew to Iraq and took over vehicles already in that country from soldiers due to rotate back home.

This would be particularly helpful to a 276-ship Navy that will never get to its decades-long goal of 350 ships to ease the operational tempo on Navy crews. Not taking other nearer-term action to mitigate this tempo is unfair both to the crews and to our nation’s security, particularly with the Western Pacific demanding more assets forward as the primary focus for future maritime operations.

Such plans have been proposed before, to both mitigate the Navy’s operational tempo and to increase sustained operational readiness while deployed. They were offered at the beginning of the global war on terror by the Navy’s strategic anti-terrorism directorate, Deep Blue, which was founded right after 9/11 and modeled on the Navy’s rotation of nuclear ballistic missile submarine crews.

The time spent by a ship’s crew transiting the oceans to get to, and return from, forward deployed positions (at least two months of a six-month deployment) is saved by flying the crews to a ship that remains forward for two years. By rotating crews, the operational tempo for them is greatly decreased even as the number of ships forward-deployed stays at least the same.

This reduced operational tempo provides more time for training the crew at home, as does a commensurate reduction in ship maintenance responsibilities during periods when the crew is back home. This additional training time helps ensure that seamanship skills are emphasized on a par with combat readiness training. And a more ready, refreshed crew from a reduced operational tempo helps prevent the atrophy of basic seamanship skills when deployed overseas.

By rotating crews, the Navy can solve two challenges caused by heightened operations and reduced forces: a reduced operational tempo for its crews, resulting in more training time for refreshed crews. And it can provide more forces forward-deployed at a reduced operational tempo.

Joe Sestak served as a three-star admiral in the Navy, and represented Pennsylvania as a Democratic member of Congress from 2007-11.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.