Homicide charges for US warship collisions are a big mistake

Four officers from USS Fitzgerald and one from USS John S. McCain including both commanding officers will face criminal charges for negligent homicide. As Navy Times notes, this is a very rare step, and now the internet is boiling over with discussions about it.

I think the criminal charges are a big mistake.

In my Critical review of lessons from US warship collisions I summarized the accidents this way:

Both collisions can be explained as a matter of incompetence on the part of the involved crews. In both cases the people on duty did not know what they were doing, so they managed to turn a routine situation into a disaster.

The crews did not follow standard US Navy procedures in their operations, but these procedures themselves show that incompetence is an institutionalized problem. The number of superfluous workflows required by US Navy procedures and the division of labor between an excessive number of assistants are counterproductive to the safe operations of the ship. What you need is one competent person to run the show on the bridge with the help of a few assistants. The US Navy approach is to spread the responsibility across many people with poor qualifications.

The Department of the Navy does not seem able to draw the relevant conclusions in their report about the accidents, because they focus solely on the mistakes made by the individuals involved. No attention is given to the faulty education system or the cumbersome procedures that allowed a culture of incompetence to develop.

The decision to press charges for negligent homicide only derails the discussion further. Now everybody will be busy discussing the criminal case, while relevant learning points are forgotten.

Arguments will be made about the individual responsibility of the commanding officer and the unique burden of command. Some will argue that the CO bears the praise and blame of everything on board. That being a ship’s commander is the loneliest job in the world, and that it takes a special character to be that person. That officers who fail to fulfill their duty need to face the consequences.

Others will say that in an age of modern communications, being a ship’s commander is no more lonely than so many other leadership jobs. That a man who had been in command for less than a month cannot bear the full responsibility. That the experience of waking from sleep when a containership crashes through the cabin, then clinging to the side of the ship until rescued with injuries by crew members also makes the CO a victim. That the public humiliation, loss of command, personal grief, and the non-judicial punishment is more than enough.

Regardless position, such an individual focus is not going to be helpful for the Navy’s attempts at learning anything from the incidents. It is in fact not very important whether Cmdrs. Benson and Sanchez were negligent or not.

What matters is that they were incompetent about navigation and seamanship. And in so being they were actually very loyal to the Navy which had put them in charge. They were the product of a leadership pipeline which doesn’t value knowledge about the craftsmanship of driving a ship. Most probably they had received praise for applying ridiculous procedures their entire career until they suddenly found themselves in command. How is such a person to recognize that he is surrounded by poor seamen?

The result of this criminal case will be that commanding officers on other ships double down on the enforcement of official procedures that do nothing good for the navigational safety. Nobody wants to be accused of negligence.

If the Navy wanted to do something useful, they should have chosen a very different path. They should have embarked on a journey of organizational learning instead of getting everybody excited about a criminal case. Signing up for an internationally recognized certification program would have been a good start. The British Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) does top of the line training and certification for warships, and it would be a truly visionary step for the US Navy to commit a ship to FOST.

But so far the Navy seems determined to blame individual officers for its shortcomings instead of actually doing something about the problem.

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