Two collisions: What's going on in the Pacific?

One marine tragedy involving the collision of a naval surface warship with a commercial merchant vessel is a curiosity. Two such ocean collisions in a short time span is an amazement.

John Keller New

One marine tragedy involving the collision of a naval surface warship with a commercial merchant vessel is a curiosity. Two such ocean collisions in a short time span is an amazement.

The U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer is among the world's most modern warships. It's packed with sensors, advanced navigation equipment, and other technologies designed to keep the vessel safe even in the most difficult maritime conditions. Nevertheless, in the course of only nine weeks, two Burke-class destroyers operating in the Western Pacific have collided with big, lumbering cargo ships more than three times their size, leading to death and injury to U.S. military personnel.

On 17 June, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) collided with the Philippine-flagged container ship MV ACX Crystal off the east coast of Japan. Then, on 21 Aug., the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collided with the oil and chemical tanker ALNIC MC in the Straits of Malacca near Singapore.

Each of the cargo vessels displaces about 30,000 tons of water and is longer than two football fields. They don't move quickly, and take a long time to turn. The Burke-class destroyer, on the other hand, displaces about 9,000 tons of water, is 509 feet long, and can move faster than 30 knots. It is maneuverable and can turn 180 degrees in a minute.

The big question is why did these collisions happen, and why should there be two similar accidents involving similar vessels in the same region of the world so closely together?

The answer is unclear, for now. A preliminary investigation of the June collision claims the accident was the Fitzgerald's fault. That mishap killed seven and injured as many as 300, including the captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson. Benson and two others in the ship's senior leadership were relieved of duty, as were Executive Officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and Master Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin.

Suffice it to say that what happened aboard the Fitzgerald was really bad, with serious breakdowns in the chain of command and deficiencies of seamanship. Those relieved of duty likely are looking at the ends of their naval careers. Mistakes can and do happen, but twice in two months? Speculation for the accidents has ranged from intentional ramming to cyber attacks on the destroyers' navigation systems. Neither has been proven.

We're not sure yet what happened aboard the destroyer McCain. It's too soon for any kind of investigation, and the latest news reports list 10 of the McCain's crew as missing, with at least one of them dead.

The day after the McCain collision, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin was relieved of duty as commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan. The McCain's collision with the ALNIC MC in the Straits of Malacca near Singapore happened in some of the most congested waters on Earth. Virtually all the world's commercial ship traffic passing between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean go through there. Still, naval surface warfare officers in command aboard the McCain are well trained in operating through congested and dangerous waters. What happened was far from routine.

Maritime accidents like these have big consequences; it doesn't involve just a bunch of big dents and scrapes.

The bulbous bows of the MV ACX Crystal and the ALNIC MC pierced the hulls of the Fitzgerald and McCain below the water line, causing massive flooding below decks; it's a testament to the skill of damage-control crews that the ships remained afloat. Damage below the water lines of these two destroyers was significant, and deaths came by drowning.

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered a pause in naval operations to review maritime practices in the Pacific. We'll see what the operational pause reveals. Let's hope the Navy can make some changes to prevent these accidents from happening again.

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