USS Fitzgerald

Debate over USS Fitzgerald collision still misses point about broken US Navy procedures

USS Fitzgerald
USS Fitzgerald after the accident. Photo: Peter Burghart/Wikimedia

The collision between USS Fitzgerald and the container ship ACX Crystal is again in public focus after ProPublica published an investigative article about the accident. The article is an embarrassing account of incompetence, neglect, overwork, inoperative equipment, and an arrogant command structure.

ProPublica’s article is written by T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose, and Robert Faturechi, and it is a truly fascinating story. Unfortunately, the following discussions have largely missed the mark. Most people seem concerned with finding explanations for why the crew on Fitzgerald did not follow the navy’s procedures in key areas regarding safe navigation. I have seen little recognition that the procedures themselves may be a problem. For example, Bryan McGrath writes for War on the Rocks:

What must be said is that in the darkness one tragic June night, a young officer on the bridge ignored her commanding officer’s orders. What must be said is that the same young officer ignored the warnings of others on the bridge about imminent danger. What must be said is that the senior person awake at the time on the ship — the tactical action officer in the ship’s weapon and sensor control room — was paying virtually no attention to the ship’s activities and added no value to avoiding the collision. What must be said is that in the same control room, the officer in charge of monitoring the presence of other ships in the area and working with the bridge team to avoid them was derelict in his duties by not comparing the information available to him (electro/optical cameras, and automated information system (sic)) clearly indicating the presence of other vessels with the radars under his control that did not. What must be said is that when the officer of the deck made her way through the control room before assuming watch and saw that there were virtually no surface contacts being tracked on radar — only to proceed to the bridge and have numerous visual contacts on the horizon — it was her duty to reconcile these differences.

McGrath’s point is that the crew members are culpable. He moves on to criticizing the commanding officer in depth, because he carried the ultimate responsibility. So McGrath engages in a discussion about who is to blame.

But frankly, the most striking thing in the quote above is how ridiculous the procedures are. If you are serious about navigation, then you do not do it in the combat room. You navigate from the bridge! Why on earth would the only AIS receiver – an instrument that the US Navy has underestimated for too long – be located anywhere else than on the bridge? Why would you track ships on a radar screen that the responsible officer cannot look at?1

As I wrote in my Critical review of lessons from US warship collisions back in 2017:

[The collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain] 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.

That estimate still stands.

  1. Hint: You don’t actually need to track a ship to determine whether there is a collision danger. An electronic bearing line can do the same in a pinch. 




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