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After two collisions and 17 deaths at sea, Congress pushing Navy on reforms

February 28, 2019
In The News

Problems identified after a pair of at-sea accidents killed 17 sailors in 2017 still persist across the Navy, and those at the top must do more to address them, key lawmakers said Tuesday.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said the challenges go beyond specific causes and “will take years of leadership focus and sustained funding to correct.”

He also chided the service for classifying information “to hide the true depth of readiness challenges that plague the Navy today.”

“It is most apparent to me that if the appropriate reforms are not implemented, these problems — and these deaths — will continue,” he told two top Navy leaders.

The hearing marked the first time the new Congress has explored the tough questions raised after the accidents related to lack of maintenance, training and manning levels.

It comes on the heels of investigations by Navy Times and Pro Publica that shed more light on the accident involving the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, which hit home in Virginia and Hampton Roads.

The Fitzgerald struck a commercial ship off the waters of Japan in June 2017, killing seven U.S. sailors. Among the dead were Chief Petty Officer Gary L. Rehm Jr., an Ohio native who lived in Hampton, and Dakota Rigsby, a 19-year-old sailor from Fluvanna County, Va.

In August, the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in coastal waters off Singapore, killing 10 sailors.

The accidents sparked two large-scale Navy reviews. The Government Accountability Office also weighed in with an audit. Among the findings: some sailors were working 100-hour weeks and hadn’t developed skills in basic seamanship and navigation, essential to operating in busy waters.

Lack of maintenance was also flagged, as ships stationed overseas were on a constant cycle of deployment.

The service has begun to reform crew policies, training standards and maintenance, but Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., questioned the leaders’ sense of urgency.

“Say you had a plane crash,” she said. “You had 17 people die in this plane crash, and you did an investigation and found out that the pilot didn’t know how to fly his plane. And then we did another report and we found out that most of our pilots didn’t know how to fly planes. Do you feel that we’re really putting that same sense of urgency into the corrective actions in our surface force?”

Adm. John C. Acquilino, who leads the Pacific Fleet, said while the aircraft may not directly compare to ships, her “point is absolutely valid.”

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who chairs the readiness panel, ticked off a list of concerns. He worried that the Navy remains more focused on shipbuilding than manning and maintenance, and it lacks transparency about the combined effect of low morale, technical problems and a “brutal operational tempo.”

The Navy Times uncovered a report that contained information not previously made public, including mistrust among officers, malfunctioning radars and sailors who didn’t know how to operate them.

Also testifying Tuesday was Adm. Christopher W. Grady, commander of Norfolk, Va.-based Fleet Forces Command.

Grady said fleet commanders are approaching the myriad of challenges “with the strongest sense of urgency.”

“We are currently safe to operate,” he said. “We are a more effective Navy, but the hard work has only just begun.”

One challenge revolves around the lack of sailors. Grady said the Navy currently has 6,200 at-sea positions that are unfilled, although those positions have been funded and the Navy “will be flowing them into the fleet over time.”

Grady and Acquilino said they have held back ships from deploying rather than risk sending out crews.

“We do not ask a ship nor direct a ship to go on mission if they are not certified to do the job,” Grady said, adding that “there have been several occasions where I have said, ‘That ship’s not ready. We’ll need more time.’”

Acquilino said he has “terminated two deployments for units that were not assessed to have the appropriate level of training to deploy and execute their missions.”

Garamendi said he will schedule additional hearings to keep track of how well the Navy is doing.