The circumstances of the crash of the USS John S. McCain near Singapore, which killed at least one U.S. sailor and has left nine missing, remain unclear pending a Navy investigation. The bigger picture, however, is already in focus: Four major accidents this year involving ships of the Seventh Fleet highlight a systemic problem that imperils American dominance on the high seas. At any given time, about 100 of the Navy’s roughly 275 ships are deployed. Yet the fleet is half the size it was 30 years ago, meaning the ships are docked for shorter periods before redeploying. The uncertainty caused by so-called budget sequestration has hindered the Pentagon’s long-term planning. All this has made shortcuts inevitable, such as neglecting standard upkeep and putting off some training until after deployment.
Such pressure on craft and crew alike takes a toll, and baseline skills such as ship-handling can atrophy. This larger context helps to explain the events of Monday, in which the McCain collided with a petroleum tanker, but there are other factors. Another of the Seventh Fleet’s destroyers — the USS Fitzgerald — collided with a container ship near Japan in June, killing seven sailors. Both ships had reportedly turned off their identification systems to maintain a military level of stealth, which is typical for a combat ship that wants to see but not be seen. Particularly in the case of the McCain, which was making its way across the most crowded commercial waterway in the world, more visibility can make for for greater safety.
It has also been reported that the commercial ships in both collisions were operating on autopilot. Especially in the Strait of Malacca, this is an unfortunate break with maritime tradition and common sense. Yet commercial ships, with smaller crews and the need to economize, often cut such corners. The shipping companies need to acknowledge and address this danger — and if they don’t, their insurers should. (It’s worth noting that the damage to the McCain is on its left-hand, or port, side, strongly suggesting it had right-of-way over the tanker.) With the McCain and Fitzgerald now out of service indefinitely, the Seventh Fleet finds itself without two of its seven Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. These are the ships equipped with the Aegis anti-missile systems that would be the front-line defense against a missile attack by North Korea in the region.
The Navy has rightly decided to put a temporary pause on operations by the Seventh Fleet, with a focus on “trends in personnel, materiel, maintenance and equipment.” Given the pervasiveness of the issues, this shutdown should be extended to its surface ships worldwide. Undoubtedly, some senior officers will find their careers ended. Yet the larger issue will remain: how best to train sailors, and deploy ships, to continue to protect vital U.S. interests in an increasingly threatening environment.