The news is just in that another Navy ship, the USS John S. McCain, has collided with an oil tanker, resulting in 10 deaths and colossal financial damage. No doubt President Trump was responsible — as President Reagan surely was for Hurricane Kate in November 1985.
Back in the mid-1970s when plane hijackings were new, the philosopher James Burnhan (author of the seminal “The Managerial Revolution,” et al) quipped that you should always carry a bomb onto an airplane, because the chances of there being two bombs on an airplane were almost zero.
The wisdom behind that quip may be applicable here: What are the chances of there being two horrendous collisions of Navy ships within two months of each other? Especially since, after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a freighter off the coast of Japan on June 17, all Navy ships were surely instructed to be extra vigilant.
Something is wrong. Two possibilities bother the layman. First, that the Navy’s computer system has been hacked, allowing foreign agents to fool a ship’s personnel into not sensing imminent danger. Second, that the Navy’s personnel, training system, or management and command structure, or all of them, are unbelievably inadequate.
The layman wonders why, even if all the sailors on the Navy ship were asleep, drunk or watching “Gilligan’s Island,” the oil tanker failed to see the USS John S. McCain. But the layman is quickly reminded by a former naval officer that the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that were involved in the collisions were designed to be as invisible to radar as possible. There are few, if any, right angles above the waterline of the ship, and much of the exterior of the ship is covered in soft padding. A ship that is designed to be “invisible” to a sophisticated enemy may not appear as a 505-foot destroyer on a commercial ship’s radar.
There are other impediments the layman is not aware of. The helmsman of a destroyer is not exactly looking out a window as if he were driving a bus down Fifth Avenue. He is at the back of a room that looks more like the mission control center at Cape Canaveral, reading instruments and getting information from other technicians on the ship. He could see an approaching ship, if he looked, but that’s not really his job. That’s the function of other people: a lookout, who is an enlisted person, and probably a junior enlisted person.
Whoever is in charge at that hour of night (the captain is snug a bed) gives orders, in order to accomplish whatever the ship’s mission is at that time, and woe unto him who crosses those orders. Deviating from the approved course is risky.
A few years ago, a flight deck officer in charge of landing a helicopter on a ship decided that the pitch and roll were too extreme to land an approaching chopper. The captain of the ship said to land it anyway.
What would you do? Disobey the captain and risk your career? Or give the clearance to land and risk killing the chopper crew?
Modern warfare is complicated, and perhaps too complicated for the traditional rank structure. Enlisted technicians may know more than seasoned officers. If you’re in the chopper, who do you want deciding if it should land? That crew was probably lucky the naval officer maintained his position and didn’t let the chopper land.
The institutional issue is how much initiative do we allow the crew, whether they are enlisted men or officers? Suppose you’re a junior whatever, in charge of the USS John S. McCain. You have been given a mission, and dodging an oil tanker (which, hey, c’mon, isn’t going to hit you anyway) may compromise that mission. What do you do?
And how well has the Navy trained you and your fellow crew members? Well enough to make the critical decisions necessary to guarantee that a $2 billion destroyer can dodge freighters and oil tankers? Or has the Navy spent its time integrating women into combat roles and onto submarines?
Are Navy personnel, officers and enlisted, trained to use their initiative or only to follow orders? And how much initiative do we really want people driving $2 billion vehicles to take? Would we have more accidents than we have had if rules were not followed, always, to the letter?
Those are questions that need to be answered. But not by the Navy alone. President Trump should appoint an independent board to investigate not just the two recent collisions, but also the whole structure of training for the Navy. We may discover that vastly more funding is necessary if we are to have a Navy that doesn’t go bump in the night. Even if we have to take the funds from the left-wing, history-hating resistance’s favorite welfare programs.
Remembering that the Navy is one of the country’s four most important welfare programs.
• Daniel Oliver is chairman of the board of the Education and Research Institute and a director of Citizens for the Republic.