I’d like to look critically at the recent Burke collisions and damage as they relate to warship design. Because sailors died, I hesitated and thought long and hard about whether to do this or not as it might seem to some as being critical or disrespectful of the dead. In the end, however, the lessons that can be learned outweigh any sensitivities and I would hope the dead would want us to learn from what happened.
ComNavOps has consistently preached that the Navy has forgotten what war is and how to design a ship for war. In addition to weapons, sensors, armor, and the like, the Navy has forgotten how to build a ship that can sustain damage and has a maximal chance of recovery for the ship and the crew. The recent McCain and Fitzgerald collision reports (Nov 2017 Memorandum and Enclosures – ref (1)) offer graphic evidence of this design deficiency and lessons that ought to be learned. Specifically, let’s look at the problem of debris after the collisions. Consider these statements from the report.
“Racks and lockers detached from the walls and were thrown about, leaving jagged metal throughout the space. Cables and debris hung from the ceiling.” (p. 53)
“Debris, including mattresses, furniture, an exercise bicycle, and wall lockers, floated into the aisles between racks in Berthing 2, impeding Sailors’ ability to get down from their racks and their ability to exit the space.” (p. 14)
“One Sailor reported that FC1 Rehm pushed him out from under a falling locker.” (p. 15)
“Exiting from the head during this flood of water was difficult and required climbing over debris.” (p. 15)
“Lockers were floating past him and he scrambled across them towards the main berthing area. At one point he was pinned between the lockers and the ceiling of Berthing 2, …” (p. 15)
“Even after the door was open, there was a large amount of debris and furniture against the door, preventing anyone from entering or exiting easily.” (p. 18)
“The passageway leading to the ladder-well was blocked by debris, wires and other wreckage hanging from the overhead.” (p. 52)
“Sailors had to climb over lockers and other debris to escape, … “ (p. 53)
“…a number of lockers that became dislodged during the collision.” (p. 54)
These statements paint a graphic picture of a nightmare maze of debris in the affected compartments. The debris impeded escape efforts and subsequent search and rescue efforts.
Let’s be clear … when a ship is hit by an explosion or collides with another ship there will be debris and lots of it. It’s unavoidable. Structural elements such as walls, doors, overheads, cable runs, etc. will be ripped apart and torn free from their mountings. Nothing can prevent that.
What can be prevented is the presence of loose debris that was never secured.
What can be minimized is the presence of debris that was never strongly secured to begin with.
What can be minimized is the presence of debris that served no warfighting purpose to begin with.
Let’s take a closer look at debris that served no warfighting purpose to begin with. This would be just what it says and would include TVs, video games, exercise bikes, couches, personal gear beyond that necessary for shipboard duty, etc. I can already hear the sound of keyboards being furiously bashed upon as people pound out replies telling me that without some comforts, no one will volunteer to join the Navy and serve aboard ship. We already addressed that, in depth, (see, “Crew Comfort”) but we’ll briefly review it.
First, I’m not saying that all creature comforts should be banned from ships. I’m saying that they should be severely minimized and modified.
Second, we have to recognize that the reason we have ships and crews is to fight and we have to be ready to fight with no notice. Stripping ship is a tradition when a ship knows that it is going to be in a fight so, if that’s a wise thing to do when combat is imminent, why should it be different just because the ship doesn’t know when it will have to fight for its life? We’ve seen that life and death situations can arise at any moment: the Cole attack while in port, the
Port Royal grounding, the and Forrestal conflagrations, mine
strikes, the missile attacks on the Burke destroyers off Enterprise , and the recent collisions and
groundings. Today, there is no such
thing as peace and safety at sea. Yemen
Third, we should ask why we feel we need creature comforts? The answer is obvious – we need them because we send ships and crews on deployments that are far too long. I’ve already addressed this and recommended that we abandon deployments in favor of missions (see, “Deployments or Missions?”). Failing this, we need to reduce deployments to 2-4 months. The problem is that we’ve done the exact opposite and gradually increased deployments to 8-12 months. We need to regain some deployment rationality. If we do that, we can live without as many comforts for reasonably short periods.
Let’s consider debris that was never secured or not strongly secured to begin with. Chairs, exercise bikes, couches, mirrors, and a hundred other items all need to be securely fastened. By “securely”, I mean fastened with ten times overkill. Fastened beyond any reasonable degree because an explosion or collision is not a reasonable scenario. Therefore, we have to prepare for the unreasonable. If that means a little less ease of use or flexibility in placement then so be it. That’s the price of survival.
Here’s a few more specific recommendations related to crew comforts and survivability:
- Lockers, furniture, etc. should not float; they should be designed to sink. It’s easier to scramble over something on the deck than try to fight past something floating right in your way.
- Locker size should be minimized. This ties in to minimizing unnecessary personal items.
- Nothing should be unsecured (exercise bikes, TVs, consoles, tables, etc.)
- Everything should be secured far more than is deemed necessary or reasonable.
- Lightly secured items should be as far inboard and as far from exits as possible
- Thought should be given to making lockers and berths out of rigid plastics instead of sheet metal which, when ripped and distorted, presents edges as sharp and lethal as knife blades. This has to be tempered by the fact that most plastics give off toxic fumes when burned. This is a recommendation that needs study and may or may not be desirable.
- Thought should be given to making large items such as lockers pre-designed to fail and separate into small sections. Thus, rather than tear an entire locker loose and present a major obstacle, smaller, breakaway sections can be produced while the larger potions remain secured as they originally were. Alternatively, but along the same line of thought, lockers can be designed as small, modular components which can separate independently from their mounts, hopefully leaving more of the overall item secured. Worse case, the smaller sections would be easier to move out of the way for escape and rescue.
Here’s an interesting though unrelated item.
“FITZGERALD also used three onboard pumps to remove water from the ship. Two of the pumps functioned as designed and a third seized and was inoperable for the duration of the recovery efforts.” (p. 11)
Clearly, the inspection and verification of operation procedures for these items was deficient. Instead of spending time sitting through another gender sensitivity meeting or filling out another sexual harassment survey, maybe we should be spending our time inspecting and operating vital equipment?
We have forgotten what war is and hand-in-hand with that we’ve forgotten how to design ships for combat and damage. Let’s not waste the lessons from McCain and Fitzgerald. They cost us too much to ignore them.
(1)Department of the Navy, Memorandum for Distribution, Enclosure (1) Report on the Collision between USS FITZGERALD (DDG 62) and Motor Vessel ACX CRYSTAL, Enclosure (2) Report on the Collision between USS JOHN S MCCAIN (DDG 56) and Motor Vessel ALNIC MC, Nov 2017