Years Of Warning, Then Death And Disaster: How The Navy Failed Its Sailors
February 11, 2019 1:21 p.m.
Two Navy destroyers from the 7th Fleet the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain were involved in deadly crashes that killed 17 sailors including two from San Diego. Senior officers onboard took the blame but an expansive investigation by the journalism non-profit ProPublica now finds that sailors up and down the chain of command from enlisted crew to three star admirals even two Navy undersecretaries sounded alarms about the perilous condition of the fleet four years before the crashes. But those warnings were largely ignored. ProPublica reporter Robert Federici joins me by Skype with more on what the investigation uncovered.
Robert welcome. Thanks for having me. Start by describing the two crashes that happened during the summer of 2017.
One of them involved the USS Fitzgerald The other involved the USS McCain. They're both Navy destroyers that are part of Japan based 7th Fleet. Both of them hit these hulking commercial vessels many times their size that are actively broadcasting their locations which makes the fact that one point a billion dollar Navy warships couldn't avoid them all the more inexplicable. Both happened within about two hours of each other and were among the worst naval accidents in history. Both were the worst in decades and the first seven sailors died in the second 10 sailors died.
Here's a clip of the chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson speaking in a video on Facebook following the USS McCain crash directed an operational pause be taken and all of our fleets around the world want our fleet commanders to get together with their leaders and their commands to ensure that we're taking all appropriate immediate actions to ensure safe and effective operations around the world.
So how did the Navy explain and respond to those disasters at the time Robert.
So the Navy went after some of the sailors on these ships criminally flag officers up to the three star level were pushed out. But we saw very little accountability above the three star level.
And so you see there was little accountability how did the Navy's response square with what you found in your reporting.
So what we found is that there were these very specific warnings from the decks of these ships all the way to the upper echelons of the Pentagon. We we we learned that before the collisions you know a sailor on Fitzgerald warns his superiors that his shipmates could die without changes on the McKay aim in the year before the collision. A sailor warned that a major incident was potentially inevitable sort of mid-level management. We learned that the commander of the Seventh Fleet was repeatedly over the course of a year or more before the collisions telling his boss I need more math.
And we're being pushed too hard. I need help. Sailors aren't trained enough. The ships are in disrepair. And he felt like he was repeatedly ignored. And then at the highest levels back in Washington we learned that two successive undersecretaries. This is the number two civilian in the Navy were warning the Navy secretary and top officials at the Pentagon Department of Defense that the surface fleet was in disrepair more money needed to go to maintenance and the surface fleet was being pushed to its brink because the Navy wasn't effectively pushing back on the endless stream of operations requests coming from combat.
KIM LANDERS So this was really a tragedy foretold almost at every level.
So in addition to being undermanned as you said the crews weren't sufficiently trained to use the sophisticated computer systems used to steer the ships and in some cases the equipment didn't work.
On the Fitzgerald the radars were in questionable shape. And you know the crew wasn't totally clear on how to operate them. We saw problems with certifications which are essentially the tests that crews used to prove themselves seaworthy and battle ready. You know the Fitzgeralds had passed just seven of 22 certifications. It wasn't even qualified to conduct its chief mission which was antiballistic missile defense. You know there were serious problems on these ships and these crews you could argue very strongly were set up to fail and the Seventh Fleet is based in Japan what is the strategic importance of the fleet.
And what was happening in that part of the world around the time of these accidents.
Yeah. That's a very good point. This is not you know all of us as Americans we feel for these sailors put in this position. We we mourn the loss of these 17 sailors. But beyond that it's there are also serious national security implications. The 7th is the most important fleet in the Navy. It protects us. It's our it's our most important protector against missiles coming in from North Korea. You know it plays a crucial role in curbing China's expansionist gains. So when you see that it's in such a state of disrepair there are serious national security implications to that.
And why did the people who spoke to you for this story say they were willing to to break custom and be so candid with reporters.
There is no sort of universal reason why they spoke to us. But the most prevalent reason was they were frustrated a that the upper echelons of the Navy had not been held accountable for their role and for their inaction despite warnings over years.
They also feel very frustrated that this same sort of collision or accident could happen again because the fleet is still undermanned sailors are still being pushed to their Brink working hundred hour weeks exhausted not getting enough sleep. So their concern is that while the Navy has instituted a number of reforms they are still not taking these shortfalls seriously enough.
I mean so what was the Navy then prioritizing over addressing these problems within the Seventh Fleet.
The Navy secretary believed that his legacy was dependent on expanding the number of ships in the Navy and b that the best way to take care of the current aging fleet was to build more ships to lessen the load on the older ships. Right. And so a lot of resources you know from the perspective of many people we talked to too much resources were going to weapons modernization and buying new ships instead of training the sailors on these ships instead of repairing ships that were breaking down. You know essentially you know the focus was on the new instead of taking care of what you had and trying to push the Department of Defense to lessen the load on these ships and require them to go out on future missions.
So then has the Navy shifted those priorities since the accident or done anything to make the 7th Fleet safer.
So the Navy has certainly instituted a number of reforms. What what they've said publicly is they've made it easier for ship captains for example to say no to missions. They feel like they're not ready for. They have tried to address the Manning problem there still shortfalls. The challenge for us is we sent the Navy pages upon pages of questions we asked for tours of ships and interviews with current sailors and officers on these ships both in Japan and the US. We were denied every step of the way. It's been very difficult for us to independent and Natalie that the Navy's shore reforms because they have not given us that access.
And you mentioned former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. He told ProPublica the deadliest accidents in decades happening within weeks of each other were just a coincidence. Is that still the prevailing wisdom of Navy leadership.
That's sort of a tough question to answer without. Without a doubt the Navy has taken a serious look at systemic problems that contributed to these collisions and presented those findings publicly.
What they haven't done is get into specifics about above the three star level who knew what when. That was not something that you could find in their public reports and that's something that we really focused on and exposed. And then you know your question as far as you know whether they believe that this was a coincidence. What you'll find often in their statements what we hear they're telling retired flag officers is that more than anything these were mistakes made by the crews on these ships that remains their focus that that the crews of these ships made mistakes that caused these accidents and that is certainly true.
But if you've got to look at that in context you know these these crews were put in almost impossible situations.
I've been speaking to ProPublica reporter Robert Federici. Robert thank you.
Thank you for having me.