NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Va. — The sky was dark and the sea was calm on June 17, 2017, when the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald crashed into the ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Japan. The collision killed seven sailors and caused extensive damage to the destroyer. No injuries were reported aboard the merchant vessel.
Two months later, the USS John S. McCain, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, turned into the path of the tanker ship Alnic MC while both vessels were passing through the congested Singapore Strait. As a result of the Aug. 21, 2017 collision, 10 sailors aboard the McCain died and 48 were injured. The destroyer sustained more than $100 million in damage. No one was injured aboard the Alnic MC.
The collisions that killed 17 sailors sent a shock wave through the Navy and caused a reckoning in the service’s surface warfare community after investigations revealed that, along with fatigue and chronic maintenance problems, a simple lack of basic seamanship was a leading factor in the accidents.
The Navy is working to address those issues with its Mariner Training Centers in Norfolk and San Diego. Part of the regular training is to put bridge crews through their paces in life-sized simulators so they can practice maneuvering a warship through a variety of scenarios.
“We want to make sure our junior officers are going to sea with the knowledge of how to handle the ship. How do we get that? We get it through simulations,” Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, commander of Naval Surface Forces, told The Washington Times in an interview.
Capt. Chris Marvin, commander of the USS San Jacinto, brought some of his officers to the training center in Norfolk to practice an underway replenishment, a method of transferring fuel and munitions from one ship to another. The maneuver can be tricky because both ships must maintain the same course and speed with sufficient distance between them.
“There is no substitute for the real world, but this is pretty close,” Capt. Marvin said as Lt. j.g. Colton Drake, one of his most junior officers, watched for the simulated cargo vessel ahead.
Within minutes, the ship on the movie screen changed from a dot on the horizon to a full-sized computer simulation. Lt. Drake adjusted his speed and sent orders for the warship to come up alongside the merchant craft. Suddenly, a mechanical problem sent it veering toward the Navy vessel.
“I wish I could have had these simulators when I was his age,” Capt. Marvin said as Lt. Drake ordered the ship to pull away, safe from the out-of-control cargo vessel. “When you’re driving a no-kidding 8,000-ton ship, there’s only so much rope the boss is going to give. In a simulator, I don’t have to worry about bending metal.”
Lt. Drake, who graduated from college in 2019, had more than 90 hours of training on a simulator under his belt before he reported to the San Jacinto.
“It makes everything on the bridge go smoothly because you’re not getting yelled at because you don’t understand something,” he said. “That was really helpful to me.”
Lt. Elizabeth Pecsok’s job as navigator aboard the USS San Jacinto is to ensure that the guided missile cruiser goes safely from point A to point B. She said regular training in the simulator is crucial.
“My priority is safe navigation, and when we’re closer to land, that’s when it’s that much more important,” Lt. Pecsok said.
The Navy’s surface warfare community may be the heart of the service, but it often has funding cuts before its peers in aviation and the submarine force. In a cost-cutting move, the Navy in 2003 eliminated the Surface Warfare Officer School division officer’s course, an intense five-month program for new officers.
The instruction was replaced with computer-based training via a container of CDs and whatever maritime skills an ensign or lieutenant (junior grade) managed to pick up after being assigned to a ship.
“That was not a good idea. It didn’t work very well for us,” Adm. Kitchener said.
After 2017, the Navy went through a comprehensive review of training for surface warfare officers to provide them with weeks of intense training long before they report to a ship.
“People do need a basic foundation of knowledge. They also need time in a trainer,” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Navy spokeswoman and surface warfare officer. “There needed to be a focus on the basics: seamanship, navigation and ship handling. They’re all starting from the same baseline.”
The jury may be out on the Navy surface warfare community’s “back to basics” emphasis on shipboard training, but Capt. Marvin said he notices the difference when junior officers report aboard the San Jacinto.
“Right away, you can tell there’s someone who’s got some experience under their belt because [the simulators] are there,” he said. “They’re doing the right thing on the bridge.”
Retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, a veteran surface warfare officer now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Navy is on the right track with its renewed emphasis on preparatory training. Still, he said it is only one piece of the puzzle.
“Until you get the balance between operations, maintenance and training right, you’re going to have a challenge,” he said. “The minute there’s budgetary pressure, it seems benign neglect gets applied to the surface warfare community. This is not a place to take risks. People are going to die, and we’ve seen that.”
Under the post-2017 guidelines, surface warfare officers will go through regular simulator training to hone their “boat driving” skills.
“Even if you’ve commanded a [guided missile destroyer] before and you’re going to command a cruiser, you still have to pass an assessment before we let you go out to that ship,” Adm. Kitchener said. “If you fail it, you don’t go.”
The Navy plans eventually to have ship-handling simulators at several major bases such as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Rota, Spain; and Yokosuka, Japan.
Adm. Kitchener said the goal is to ensure that every Navy ship will have access to a reliable place to solidify the crew’s mariner skills as a team by rehearsing in realistic scenarios until they can “perform like an orchestra, perfectly in tune.”
“Our mariner skills training resources are invaluable. With those strong programs in place, we can expand our training focus to the high-end fight,” he said.