Saturday, May 26, 2018

Navy Fails McCain Collision Accountability

The Navy has resolved the court martial case of the Commanding Officer of the USS McCain during the recent fatal collision.  As part of a pre-trial plea agreement, the negligent homicide charges were dropped, charges were reduced, and the officer pled guilty to dereliction of duty.  Punishment is to be a letter of reprimand, forfeiture of $2000/month pay for 3 months (essentially, a $6000 fine), and requirement that he submit a retirement request which may or may not be accepted. (1)

I’m outraged by this.  The Captain is responsible for the safety of his ship and crew.  Yes, there was virtually unlimited fault extending all the way up the chain of command to the CNO and SecNav.  Who along the chain is most to blame is a debatable point but ALL are guilty of negligent homicide because ALL knew about the problems and DID NOTHING to prevent them.  Every one of the officers in that chain should be charged with negligent homicide.

There is one person, however, who is more responsible then any of the others and that is the Captain of the ship.  His is the final accountability and final responsibility.  His is the decision to risk taking his ship and crew to sea – all sea voyages have risk – or to refuse.  Knowing full well all the problems with inadequate manning, lapsed certifications, inadequately trained crew, and so on, he still chose to take his ship and crew to sea.  When he did so, he assumed ALL the responsibility for their safety.  Therefore, he bears ALL the guilt.

To try him on anything less than negligent homicide is to make a joke of the responsibilities of a Captain.

Yes, refusal to put to sea would likely have ended his career but we expect a ship’s Captain to have the moral courage sufficient to take that step, if needed.  His career might have ended but it would have ended without ten deaths on his conscience.

On the other hand, the Navy’s instructor pilots refused to fly due to safety concerns and their careers have not ended.  In many circles, they are hailed as heroes who had the courage to stand against unsafe orders.  So, the argument that the Captain’s career would have ended is not even supported by recent evidence and is an irrelevant argument anyway.  Moral courage is not a matter of career convenience – it is an absolute that must be exercised regardless of circumstances.  That it would have entailed risk and possible negative consequences for him, personally, is why the phrase “moral courage” contains the word “courage”.

The prosecutors who accepted (and possibly conceived) the plea deal also exhibited moral cowardice.  This was not the crime to plea down.  This was the crime to set the example for all ship’s Captains to come.

I am ashamed of my Navy.


(1)Navy Times website, “Former McCain CO sentenced at court-martial for fatal collision”, J.D. Simkins, 25-May-2018,


  1. Being an extremely high visibility case, I cannot imagine prosecutors would make such a deal without approval from their higher headquarters,

    1. No doubt. By "prosecutors", I mean the entire prosecution team and leadership.

  2. In the 2018 Navy, "Just following orders [to get underway]" is an acceptable defense to homicide.

    If any one of those 10 dead sailors (mostly ETs) has misoperated a radar or other high voltage equipment and killed an officer, would the Navy have been half as lenient?

    I've lost interest in the Navy. Its not the one I served in and I feel no loyalty anymore. Its become an corpulent instrument of injustice. Justice for me, not for thee.

    Best of luck to them, but I think I'm through. Keep up the good work CNO. You're the last of the lights.

    1. Your comments are spot on, sir.

      But they did have a reason--no one knew how to operate the integrated bridge and navigation system--which was the proximate cause of the collision.

      The Fitzgerald, by comparison, had literally dozens of human errors, almost any number of which could have led to its disaster.

      Old reserve former OOD(F)/Navigator/XO

    2. "Best of luck to them, but I think I'm through."

      I certainly understand the disillusionment that you have. Bear in mind, though, that one of the purposes of this blog is to try to change the Navy for the better by offering criticisms and solutions. I harbor no illusion that I'm going to single-handedly alter the entire Navy but I do get lots of email feedback from active duty service personnel of all ranks so I know that what's written here gets read. My hope is that bits of what is written can, at the appropriate moments, and by the appropriate people, helps to improve my beloved Navy.

      I urge you to do the same. Share the benefit of your experience with us and offer criticisms and solutions, rather than give up. I guarantee you that they will be read by active duty personnel.

  3. I know it is an extended weekend, but I am surprised at the lack of comments in this very important post. Part of the Navy's biggest challenge moving forward is the problem particularly addressed here: moral courage. In ROTC and SWOs they never shut-up about that term. Yet, as recent events show, it is all just talk. I used to roll my eyes when I heard the term tossed around, mostly because it sounded like lip service. I guess I was right. Think about it; these accidents occurred in peacetime navigation. How in the world would these crews respond to conventional threats, such as a well trained Chinese naval force? The outlook is not good.

  4. Interesting observation about the difference between the surface and air communities. In my limited experience, you can see a cultural difference between the communities that extends into safety and acceptable risk. The surface community seems to take the risk as part of following order or "getting the job done" while the air community in all levels of the chain of command takes safety extremely seriously, encouraging aviators to call foul when there is a safety issue.

    1. Excellent point, sir.

      Until the Surface Community adopts higher training standards, NATOPS, anonymous safety reports, etc. these accidents are going to continue. Same as when I was an OOD in Vietnam times.

      Old reserve OOD/Navigator/XO

    2. "Until the Surface Community adopts ..."

      Yes and no. The surface community has high training standards, required certifications, all kinds of safety mechanisms, a Captain who is the last and ultimate line of safety defense, etc. They just don't follow them and they don't exhibit the personal moral courage to stop things. All the new standards in the world won't help if you ignore your own standards. The Navy has lots of certifications that are supposed to be met before a ship can sail but when push came to shove, they simply waived the standards. So, yes and no. Standards are good, in theory, but useless if they're simply waived or ignored.

      Regarding the aviation side, let's recall that the Navy for some years ignored the oxygen deprivation problem, then tried to explain it away as pilot error, and only very slowly and grudgingly admitted that a problem even existed. It took a group of instructor pilots to stand up and refuse to fly to finally get some significant action.

      The aviation side may be better but it's a matter of degree rather than a complete reversal.

  5. "The aviation side may be better"...but it IS better, is it not, Sir?

    I originally commented to strongly agree with your article and certainly did not mean to distract from that excellent thread.

    My point, if I may, is that recent investigtions have concluded that a number of SWO qualified officers were unable to handle very basic conning evolutions, and that such investigations reveal a very serious problem in SWO training and certification which requires immediate review and action.

    Solving budget problems,crew fatigue, Can-Do-itis, etc. will do no good if our navy cannot carry out routine sailing evolutions.

    My point stated, I promise not to distract further from
    your article, which reflects my views exactly.

    Old reserve OOD/Navigator/XO

    1. Your comments are excellent and I look forward to more. You obviously have a wealth of experience to share and I hope that you will.

    2. "Old reserve OOD/Navigator/XO"

      I'd love to hear your perspective on modern navigation (meaning GPS) as opposed to sightings, bearings, etc. I fear the modern navy has become so dependent on GPS that if it fails, we have no backup skills. The Port Royal ran aground in home waters because the GPS was not working and no one had any ability to establish position by any other means.

      What are your thoughts on modern navigation? What if GPS is denied/degraded in combat - how will we navigate?

      I toured a Cyclone class PC when it was docked in a major city on a PR visit and noted that the ship's GPS showed it to be 15 miles inland in the middle of a park. When asked, the crew guide told me that it rarely worked and pointed out a small GPS taped to the bulkhead that had been obtained from a retail camping store. He said that one was always accurate and was the one the crew actually used!

      I'd love to hear your thoughts on navigation.

    3. In response to your request, sir, I think that my last navigational fix was made sometime in early 1970 (should have kept a professional log like aviators do).

      Having demonstrated that I have absolutely no current professional experience whatsoever, I will nonetheless, go on to respond to your request on the Port Royal grounding investigation, which I can easily summarize as, "SWO qualified officers had no idea what they were doing."

      Old reserve OOD/Nav/XO

  6. I was a Combat Cargo Officer on the USS Juneau (LPD 10) out of Sasebo Japan. One of my friends aboard was the Navigator and he was constantly drilling his folks on how to Celestial Navigate the ship when he was the OOD. He would do sightings in the day and night and plot course. Everyone on his watch station at least had the basics of how to accomplish this. I guess my point is...where are those young officers in todays Navy?


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