The Navy’s helo-based MCM, in the form of 28 MH-53E Sea Dragons, is ancient, long overdue for retirement, and scheduled to be retired without replacement (see, “MH-53E and Mine Countermeasures”).
The Navy also operates 11 Avenger class MCM vessels which, like the MH-53E’s, are past due retirement and have barely been kept seaworthy.
With this background, you would think that the Navy would treasure every MCM asset it has and the loss of any would be devastating. That makes the Jan 2013 grounding and loss of the Avenger class USS Guardian (MCM-5) on a reef in the Philippines all the more tragic. The only saving grace is that no one was killed.
|USS Guardian On Reef|
Let’s take a look at the Navy’s grounding report, provided by the Navy’s Freedom of Information service. (2)
The first sentence in the Executive Summary of the original report says it all:
The grounding of USS GUARDIAN was entirely preventable.
The CO, XO/NAV, and ANAV failed to ensure consistent application and compliance with prudent, safe, and sound navigation principles and standards during navigation planning and underway execution.
Does this sound at all familiar? Isn’t this almost word for word the findings in the Burke collisions? The Navy has had repeated opportunities to correct its cultural and institutional leadership failings and has declined to do so.
Before we go any further, it is necessary to address the general belief that the cause of the grounding was a chart error which implies that the crew was not at fault. This is factually only partially correct and the conclusion that the crew was not to blame is totally incorrect.
The crew had access to multiple charts and sources of navigational data, only one of which had an incorrect location for the reef. The Captain and navigation team knew about the chart discrepancy, opted to ignore it, and chose to rely on the incorrect chart in a mistaken belief that it was the more reliable one. The report covers the chart issue in great detail and makes clear that the inaccurate chart was not the cause of the grounding.
Now, let’s look at some specifics.
The Navigation Plan was badly flawed. From the report,
The CO-approved Navigation Plan for the transit from Subic Bay, RP to Makassar, Indonesia was imprudent, unsafe, and unsound.
So, disaster was baked into the plan.
The CO-approved Voyage Plan for the restricted waters transits inbound and outbound Subic Bay, coupled with corresponding log entries and crew member statements, indicate exclusive reliance on a single source of electronic navigation (Global Positioning System (GPS) from the AN/WRN-6 or Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR)) by the Bridge during the Sea and Anchor Details despite the availability of visual aids to navigation and RADAR navigation.
How many times has ComNavOps pointed out the Navy’s dependence on GPS and subsequent loss of basic navigational skills? Further, the dependence has created an air of arrogance fostering the belief that GPS is flawless. This arrogance has led to the abandonment of basic precautions like lookouts, radar fixes, etc.
… the CO-approved Voyage Plan plotted the Plan of Intended Movement (PIM) over the northwest corner of the South Islet of Tubbataha Reefs, nearly the exact location where USS GUARDIAN ran aground.
Seriously??? You plotted your own grounding! This is incompetence and negligence on a staggering scale.
Ignoring the fact that the navigation plan intended to run over a reef, there were various alarms that attempted to point out dangers.
Based on a simulation ran by the Investigating Officer and the_ Technical Assistant on the CO-approved Voyage Plan used by USS GUARDIAN on VMS-3 [ed, Voyage Management System], when the ship approached Jessie Beazley Reef and Tubbataha Reefs the VMS-3 issued 12 dangers with associated visual and audible alerts prior to the reaching the location of the grounding.
… visual VMS alarms and dangers were available to the OOD, QMOW, and CIC watchstanders at various portions of the transit. However, based on witness statements, it is my opinion that the audible alarms were not heard because the Bridge and CIC either disabled the audible alarm feature or turned the VMS volume down on their respective VMS consoles.
You plotted your own grounding and you turned off the alarms that tried to save you????
Wait, it gets better.
Had USS GUARDIAN not ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, the imprudent, unsafe, and unsound CO-approved Navigation Plan would have placed the ship directly over another navigation hazard with unknown depth at latitude …
So, they had a second potential grounding as a backup in case the first didn’t get them? You’ve got to admire that kind of determination to self-destruct.
|Guardian On Reef|
Equipment operability was also an issue.
All equipment related to safe navigation was operable at the time of grounding with the exception of the Digital Dead Reckoning Tracer (DDRT) and the starboard Bridge-to-Bridge radio in the Pilot House.
Prior to LCDR Rice assuming command, the Digital Dead Reckoning Tracer (DDRT) had not been used. When LCDR Rice assumed command, he directed use of the DDRT for contact management in ere. The CO released a Category Two Casualty Report (CASREP) for the DDRT, and technical representatives had come onboard to repair/replace a faulty circuit card. The repairs were not successful, and the DDRT remained degraded at the start of deployment up until the grounding on 17 January.
This demonstrates a long seen pattern of degraded equipment and failure to repair in a timely manner. The Navy is focused on new ship construction to the catastrophic detriment of existing ships.
|Guardian Being Cut Up During Salvage Operations|
The report offers a conclusion,
There is nothing more fundamental to a professional mariner than the safe navigation of his or her vessel. As this investigation shows, the U.S. Navy is "re-learning" painful lessons taught by the grounding of USS PATRIOT (MCM 7) near Chinhae Bay, Korea on 19 March 2005, and the grounding of USS PORT ROYAL (CG 73) on 5 February 2009. Only this time the lessons cost our Navy the total loss of a commissioned warship, and nearly cost Sailors' lives.
We can and must do better. My recommendations address deficiencies and/or causal/contributing factors identified in the areas of shipboard leadership, crew readiness, navigation standards, manning, training, personal qualification standards, equipment and publications.
Did the Navy learn any lessons from any of these incidents? The subsequent grounding of the Antietam and collisions of the McCain and Fitzgerald demonstrate that they did not.
On an interesting and possibly related note, the report shows that the USS Guardian had 59 at-sea days in all of 2012. That is not much sea time and the lack of practical experience may have been a contributing factor to the grounding. We are seeing the same phenomenon play out, today, in naval aviation with non-deployed squadrons getting barely enough flight hours to stay flight qualified let alone any advanced training. Similarly, no LCS deployed in 2018. How are Navy personnel supposed to get experience if they don’t operate?
As the old saying has it, the sea is a harsh mistress. Arrogance toward the sea will kill you. Refusal to learn lessons will ensure that disasters continue to happen. Navy leadership is badly broken and incapable of fixing itself. Congress and the Secretary of the Navy need to clean house and fire every Navy Admiral and start over.
(1)Navy Matters blog, “MH-53E and Mine Countermeasures”, 17-Apr-2018,https://navy-matters.blogspot.com/2018/04/mh-53e-and-mine-countermeasures.html