In the Media

Do Repeated Navy Collisions Suggest a Systematic Problem?

Bryan McGrath on USS John S. McCain Collision

Former Deputy Director, Center for American Seapower

On August 21st, Bryan McGrath appeared on PBS News Hour to discuss the collision between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker east of Singapore.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The Navy’s top admiral has ordered a one-day, worldwide safety review after a destroyer collided with a civilian oil tanker ship east of Singapore. Ten U.S. sailors are missing and five are injured. Just two months ago, there was another deadly collision between a destroyer and a cargo ship near Japan.

These are the latest in a series of incidents involving Navy ships in the Pacific. Is there a systemic problem?

John Yang has more.

JOHN YANG: Thanks, Judy.

To examine that question, we’re joined by retired Navy Officer Bryan McGrath, who commanded a destroyer identical to the ones involved in the two latest collisions. He’s now a consultant to the Navy.

Mr. McGrath, thanks for joining us.

We’ve had four incidents in the Pacific with Navy ships. The last two collisions, the Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan, the McCain now off the coast of Singapore. A run of bad luck or is there something more elemental wrong here?

CMDR. BRYAN MCGRATH (RET.) Hudson Institute: You can’t hang your hat on a run of bad luck. It’s unsatisfying and probably not the right answer. The right answer is to look hard at what ties these incidents together, all four of them, potentially, and learn from that. So, it’s — reaching conclusions is wrong right now. Forming hypotheses is right.

JOHN YANG: But what could be the problem? If there is a systemic problem, what do you think the roots could be?

CMDR. BRYAN MCGRATH: The roots go back to tend of the Cold War. The roots go back to America becoming the predominant sea power on the face of the earth and losing an opponent that focused its efforts and, over the course of time, the Navy became less important to the country and we progressively funded it less. We had less of a Navy, less of a size of the Navy, and we funded it inconsistently over the course of the last 12 or 13 years.

JOHN YANG: So, how did the lack of funding translate into these kinds of accidents?

CMDR. BRYAN MCGRATH: It translates by having too few ships to do what’s required in that theater, and because there are too few ships and the work has to be done, my theory is that they sometimes have to cut corners on the basic training, and I think CNO today who announced a panel to look into this, I think that’s one of the things they’ll look it, whether or not they’re getting the basic training time they need.

JOHN YANG: CNO, chief of naval operations. So, in this sort of pause, this operational pause, what’s going to happen?

CMDR. BRYAN MCGRATH: The first thing is if a ship is involved many a sensitive operational mission, it won’t pause. It will continue to do its operations. But by and large, throughout the fleet, both at sea and in a shore, ships will take a full day. They will get their bridge teams, their combat information center teams, their engineering teams together, their navigation detail.

And they will go through the procedures. They will go through the common reports. They will go through the things that they have to do every time right the first time and create a sense of importance, create a sense that business as usual is not acceptable. We have to get back on the right side of safety here.

JOHN YANG: You commanded a destroyer, Arleigh Burke (ph), for how long?

CMDR. BRYAN MCGRATH: Two years ago.

JOHN YANG: Did you have any close calls?

CMDR. BRYAN MCGRATH: Anyone who’s gone to sea for an extended period of time has had close calls. How close they are comes — is a factor of how just well you and the other ship involved are following the rules of the road. If both ships follow the rules of the road, they’re not going to collide.

JOHN YANG: Bryan McGrath, thanks for joining us to talk about this.