Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy
February 6, 2019 10:54 AM   Subscribe

A little after 1:30 a.m. on June 17, 2017, Alexander Vaughan tumbled from his bunk onto the floor of his sleeping quarters on board the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald. The shock of cold, salty water snapped him awake. He struggled to his feet and felt a torrent rushing past his thighs. [a ProPublica investigation]
posted by Chrysostom (43 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Great link, and I'm looking forward to reading it. As I recall, there were two similar incidents like this in the western Pacific in one year. As part of the fallout, the top brass of the Seventh Fleet was fired. The major contributing factor to the accidents was how operational decisions aboard Navy vessels -- there's an entire chain of command that must be followed, which can result in delays or even in a total lack of communication. There was no way "in" to communicate and coordinate with the bridge for the other vessels in the shipping lane.
posted by JamesBay at 11:06 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

As an Army veteran who often dealt with shortages, I am shocked. Jesus Christ, how is the 7th Fleet...the fleet directly covering China, the Koreas, and Russia in this bad of shape? This is the tip of the spear, the very front line, battling both the ocean and anything else that arises. I am aghast.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 11:20 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

I happened to read this earlier today (via Longform) and it was an excellent article.

At the highest level of command it sounds like the 7th Fleet is being run as if WWII is in full swing and critical maintenance has to be put off or the war could be lost by next week. Obviously that is not the case, but the top of the chain isn't willing to tell the Pentagon that they are unable to deploy that ship to that mission - even if the mission is "have a photo op to show North Korea how serious we are".

The strongest aspect of the article for me was how it portrayed individual officers as nuanced human beings who make mistakes sometimes, have some weaker or stronger skills, and are the subject of widely varying opinions from their comrades. Often these retrospective investigations will build that kind of portrayal for just the commanding officer or one person who is the subject of major consequences - but this article does it for a whole cast of characters. There were no scapegoats.
posted by allegedly at 11:35 AM on February 6 [10 favorites]

That's the impression I'm getting, too. Ships and sailors are being run into the ground -- sometimes literally -- in the service of nothing more than saber-rattling theatrics.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:06 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Not enough Admirals drummed out of the Navy over this, just enough to make it look like the Pentagon cares one whit about preparedness for a real mission.
posted by tclark at 12:14 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I kept having two thoughts one after the other: “holy shit these sailors are amazing...but they shouldn’t have to be in this situation at all.”
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:16 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

> The sailors on the $1.8 billion destroyer are young, tired and poorly trained.

Cutting corners on labour and maintenance while throwing mountains of money at something flashy that makes management look good doesn't sound like the modern world I know.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:20 PM on February 6 [24 favorites]

It sounds to me as much a classic workplace case of senior vs middle management, short term-ism, people promoted to positions that don't suit them, newbies thrown in at the deep end, one person doing multiple roles, warnings ignored, people performing heroics to keep the show on the road. Turns out the buildup to World War III is just another shitty office job.
posted by kersplunk at 12:34 PM on February 6 [16 favorites]

The Fitzgerald ... had beautiful lines — a steeply curving prow, four swept-back smokestacks, a foredeck with a powerful 5-inch gun and a flat aft deck for helicopter landings ... Sleek, fast, strategically critical, the Fitzgerald could often seem closer to a wreck.

(the ship represents the usa)
posted by entropone at 12:41 PM on February 6 [8 favorites]

I just read an article about the shifting magnetic north pe, making all navigation iffy, then the rise in sea levels has made all distances greater. There s÷m to be no absolutes. We all k ow.the various trickle down theories.
posted by Oyéah at 1:08 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I hope most people remember the USS Iowa turret explosion from the late 80's that killed nearly 50 sailors. In short the explosion was caused by managerial incompetence but the navy made up a story of a homosexual love affair gone wrong and a suicidal sailor with a detonator. I am not making this up. Google USS Iowa if you don't believe me.

The real military is not like Tom Clancy's military. You had better make sure you take care of yourself cause the Navy is going to take care of Itself.
posted by Pembquist at 1:08 PM on February 6 [17 favorites]

(Sidebar: a dear high school pal of mine was deployed on the Iowa when the turret blew. Believe me, I remember. I had the fascinating experience of getting a VIP tour of the ship this past summer because Wes keeps in touch with the volunteers that currently man the vessel, many of them shipmates of his who were also present on that day. He reached out to them and arranged that my wife and I would be pulled out of line as we boarded. I used to send multi-page comic-strip letters to Wes while he was in the Navy and he was always kind enough to share those with his shipmates.)
posted by mwhybark at 1:30 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]

You had better make sure you take care of yourself cause the Navy is going to take care of Itself.
The Navy explicitly ruled out problems with any of the ship’s radars.

And of course no politician can ever run on a platform of reforming all the bullshit from the top brass, because that wouldn't be "supporting the troops". Even though the end result of the status quo is a lot of dead enlisted folks.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:33 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

Not enough Admirals drummed out of the Navy over this, just enough to make it look like the Pentagon cares one whit about preparedness for a real mission.

It's also worth remembering the Fat Leonard scandal, with everyone it has taken down and everyone it hasn't.

We have a whole lot of dumpster fires going on across the military. All that money thrown at the DoD in budget increases isn't there to fix the problems. It's just money for other rich people to play with while the regular working stiffs face crazy shit like this day in and day out.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:37 PM on February 6 [12 favorites]

This article is amazing -- and does a service towards telling the story of those lost, and those responsible.

I thought the article was fine, and then it hit best-of-the-web-4-reals when I got to the berthing quarters animation and just I just lost it because -- those poor sailors dead because... everyone from the top down cut corners. And here's what their decisions cost.

Captain not refusing because he couldn't sail with watches on both port and starboard? WTF? I know it's not Tom Clancy's Navy, but really how about basic seamanship. Fucking Quint ran a tighter ship.

And they're taking enough tax dollars to do it right in the first place. Cancel an aircraft carrier, and use that 15B for needed maintenance across the board.
posted by mikelieman at 2:05 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]

About 1/3 of the way through, this story is blowing away my previous record for out-loud "holy shits" and "Jesus Christs."
posted by the phlegmatic king at 2:05 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

That was as comprehensive as I - a rando civi, could handle. I'll need a minute to really sit with the actual story. It could be so much better for these folks, we could do so much better.
posted by zenon at 2:41 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

I’ve read in other articles that being a ship’s Captain in the US Navy is seen as a mere box to be ticked on one’s way to the important jobs in the Pentagon, and seamanship is not at all valued any more.

Maneuvering warships into the path of cargo vessels twice in a few months is a symptom of massive mismanagement by Navy top brass, and a lot of Admirals’ heads should have rolled after this.
posted by monotreme at 2:48 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

The equipment failures and deficiencies are bad enough, but it sounds as if the whole thing might have been avoided if the officers standing watch had merely had an adequate amount of sleep. And politicians want to increase the number of ships in the Navy? Who will sail them?
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:51 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

From Potemkin villages to the Battleship Potemkin to Potemkin battleships.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:59 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

Oh G-d. That roster of the dead in order of when they were recovered.

Seaman Dakota Rigsby, 19


Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Douglass, 25


Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos Victor Sibayan, 23


Specialist Xavier Martin, 24


Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc “Tan” Truong Huynh, 25

Noe Hernandez, 26


Gary Rehm, 37


WE have failed each and every one of them, and their families. I am ashamed.
posted by mikelieman at 3:10 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

I am currently on my nth read-through of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and the first part of this article, describing leaving port with an understaffed ship in need of serious repairs, and Capt. Benson's first command including scrounging parts and begging supplies to keep his ancient ship going, made me think, "Not much has changed in the Navy in 200 years."

Although there was definitely human error at work in this, the article as a whole made me wonder WTF we're spending our massive defense budget on. Of course it's not on keeping ships repaired and staffed in a way that would keep the sailors manning them safe when they're not even in combat.
posted by Orlop at 3:35 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]

I am shocked. Jesus Christ, how is the 7th Fleet...the fleet directly covering China, the Koreas, and Russia in this bad of shape? This is the tip of the spear, the very front line, battling both the ocean and anything else that arises.

As far as my $.02 take, this question is answering itself. The 7th fleet covers an area with a great deal of geopolitical manuvering, and America has to make itself felt in this area constantly. So the leaders of the 7th fleet feel compelled to push their ships harder and farther than even a warship is meant to be pushed. Captains are pressured to present their ships as mission-ready even when they're not. Crews are forced to endure a crushing operational tempo, which also leads to more shoreside incidents when sailors desperately try to relieve stress in unhealthy ways with what little free time they have. Sailors leave the Navy in droves rather than reenlist in hopes of being moved elsewhere. Personnel shortages lead to manning shortages and training shortages, and it all runs together until you have a repeated series of disasters and sailors dying in peaceful waters.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:39 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

America has to make itself felt in this area constantly.

Citation needed
posted by lalochezia at 5:10 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Personnel shortages lead to manning shortages and training shortages, and it all runs together until you have a repeated series of disasters and sailors dying in peaceful waters.

It feels like "If you can't operate a ship fully staffed, fully repaired, fully trained, etc. you (can't have another || can't have that one)" should be a pretty basic requirement.
Like, I know in practice the metrics would be gamed all the way up the chain (that's a big part of the issue at play here), but. If we can't operate a competent navy, clearly the one we have is too big and we need to shrink it until it's at a size we *can* sustainably run.
posted by CrystalDave at 5:23 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

If all your diplomacy is going to be gunboat diplomacy, you better take care of your gunboats
posted by Redhush at 5:39 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

America has to make itself felt in this area constantly.

Citation needed

"These forward-deployed units represent the heart of Seventh Fleet, and the centerpieces of American forward presence in Asia. They are 17 steaming days closer to locations in Asia than their counterparts based in the continental United States. It would take three to five times the number of rotationally-based ships in the U.S. to equal the same presence and crisis response capability as these 18 forward deployed ships. On any given day, about 50% of Seventh Fleet forces are deployed at sea throughout the area of responsibility."

Sine qua non.
posted by clavdivs at 5:43 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

The Fitz itself and I come from the same town. All through my childhood I was told to look at the mobile fortresses being built beside the river and know that there were no finer ships, no better technology, and no fiercer weaponry, anywhere. Whatever I might do in life, I was standing on the shoulders of all the craftspeople who had built "The Yard". It's been a treasured part of my story so, even though I went away from shipbuilding, it's massively disorienting and disheartening to read how completely the crew's equipment failed them.
posted by qbject at 6:10 PM on February 6

clavdivs - My take on that comment was not that it was questioning the logistical challenges facing the 7th Fleet but rather the foreign policy premised on enforcing US hegemony. Still a debatable point, but it's a political debate.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:29 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

This is probably what you meant Wrtech729, but to perhaps expand, either the policy of enforcing US hegemony or this particular strategy supports that cause could be questioned.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:05 PM on February 6

Although there was definitely human error at work in this, the article as a whole made me wonder WTF we're spending our massive defense budget on. Of course it's not on keeping ships repaired and staffed in a way that would keep the sailors manning them safe when they're not even in combat.
This was honestly my first thought. We're spending ~$600b/year and we're sending out ships that are in worse shape than the junker I drove around in high school? Where is the money going? We're just shoveling around 15% of the federal budget every year into an unaccountable black hole and in return we're getting...this.
posted by protocoach at 7:17 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]

This was a hard read. I've spent a lot of my life in the shadow of the Navy, growing up so close to a base that we held junior prom there, and I not only have family members enlisted right now but I also have an immediate family member and a very close friend who work for military contractors.

Military contractors getting rich off electronics (like the radar) that isn't working, can't work, and won't ever work? They really can't be left out of the equation.

The Navy is screwing it up by poorly training its people and failing to show leadership when asked to do things beyond its capabilities, but Congress and the civilian overseers of the military are screwing it up by doing anything but hold the contractors accountable when projects fail, spectacularly.

17 sailors (between the two accidents) shouldn't have had to die because no one at the top is doing their job and shit rolls downhill.
posted by librarylis at 8:17 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

To keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour.

I mean... whatever floats your boat.
posted by ethansr at 9:17 PM on February 6

Undertrained, undersupplied, and with a budget devoted to useless high tech toys. This is why if we actively get in a fight with even a third tier power like Iran, we're probably going to lose ships. If we end up in a fight with a second tier power like China, we'll definitely lose multiple ships. With the syste the Navy is in, the current level of brinkmanship is insane.
posted by happyroach at 10:43 PM on February 6 [4 favorites]

Wow, that was a heart-pounding read. I really appreciated how the authors humanized all of the officers and enlisted sailors. I also thought that the visual were fantastic and really helped me understand everything. (In addition to the animation of Berthing 2, I thought that the onboard video that showed, via the spinning of lighting, that the ship had done a 360 in 5 minutes was particularly effective).

But this line: The Navy explicitly ruled out problems with any of the ship’s radars. was so brief, and so rage-inducingly damning.
posted by TwoStride at 9:06 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]

I got a very strong sense that being an ambitious Naval officer in the 7th means that you never, ever say "we're (I'm) not able (don't know how) to do that" to your superior, ever. Like, it's a point of pride, a sign of a good sailor and officer to just get it done, or appear to get it done, because anything less means you are the problem.

Also, any given hack, "good-enough", overwork and fatigue "right now", giving up on unreliable equipment and making-do, seems reasonable at the time but quickly becomes "this is how we do things" and people become complacent because there's never been a catastrophe. Which is common in many human institutions, but is unacceptable in context where lives are, or could be, on the line.

What I argue in the latter paragraph is bad enough, but the first paragraph is what made the eventual consequences inevitable because all the incentives for everyone with responsibility for fixing a bad situation with bad habits are to double-down on the "can do" attitude. They're rewarded by their superiors, who are then rewarded by their superiors because the 7th fleet reliably does whatever is asked of it.

Until it doesn't.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson (the captain), and Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock (the officer of the deck who made the fateful decisions) were both regarded as exceptionally promising officers.

But we know that Coppock had failed to report a prior near collision, and rather than follow the most basic protocol and training, twice that night she choose otherwise: first to continue rather than full engine reverse to a stop, then to accelerate and turn left rather than right (which correctly was her first inclination as is standard). The first choice was, I don't doubt, driven by her desire to make haste as per Benson's orders, and both the first and second decisions were driven by her uncertainty about where the Fitzgerald would end up among the three ships she was hoping to race in front of. Many factors were beyond her control but the fundamental mistake she made was attempting to solve all her problems at once instead of falling back on her training. That's overconfidence and ambition. Not reporting her earlier near miss was careerist ambition. (Not trusting either of the "mustangs" -- enlisted who rose to commissioned officers -- also is revealing.)

As for Benson, he was determined to discipline and train the experienced crew who'd become complacent under the prior, relatively lackadaisical captain, as well as the large influx of newbies. He was going to train them them hard, set a new example. (I was reminded of Queeg.) So he overworked himself and Coppock and Lt. Natalie Combs (in charge of the CiC, with all the radar equipment), each of whom had critical responsibilities at that time. Even taking a rest, under those conditions, crossing that busy shipping lane at 20 knots, he should have been sleeping in his bunk on the bridge. He shouldn't have allowed Coppock to rely on only one person on watch, even if he was willing to do so when he or Cmdr. Sean Babbitt (second in command) were on the bridge.

From this narrative, it's a bit more difficult to see why Babbitt got a reprimand and Combs was charged with dereliction of duty, but the subtext (especially with Combs) is that each were aware, or should have been aware, that things were dangerously in disarray and should have acted as a buffer between Benson's ambitions for the Fitzgerald and all the compromises the crew had to daily make.

I feel bad for Coppock, because she had so much potential, tried so hard, and understood and admitted her responsibility. Even so, she was the most proximate cause of the collision given that she was the single person most empowered to have avoided it, once the danger was recognized. Twice she made the wrong decision, both times contrary to instruction and training.

I feel bad for Benson, but not so much that I think he's justified in fighting the charges against him. Aside from the fact that by tradition and law, he was responsible, there's the simple truth that he was very well aware of all the factors that contributed to this. He shouldn't have ordered his inexperienced, overworked, exhausted, sleep-deprived crew to cross that very busy shipping channel at 20 knots, knowing that the CiC's radar awareness of other ships was diminished, especially given that he was relying on only one watch on the bridge. And given all that, he shouldn't have left the bridge when he chose to order what he ought not have in the first place.

The problems with equipment and insufficient personnel are both underlying factors that are the fault of Naval Command. But so too are its accepting and encouraging a culture where safety takes a back-seat to building a reputation as an officer who gets the job done.

The failed equipment and green personnel were themselves not enough to cause this accident. It was a command failure, first and foremost: by the Fitz's officers, but also by the command structure above them who rewarded them and those like them for the kinds of bad decisions they made.

I'd very much be interested in the thoughts of military veterans about this. It's not an environment or culture I have first-hand experience with. But this detailed narrative left me feeling that personal ambition trumped safety and training in numerous cases and respects and that such a thing only happens with this many officers and in multiple ships if the command culture itself rewarded this misapplied ambition rather than punishing it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:59 PM on February 7 [8 favorites]

Vern Clark, the Navy’s top military officer during much of the Bush era, brought an MBA to the job and pitched his cuts to the force using the jargon of corporate downsizing.

How much human misery in the world can be laid directly at the hands of fucking MBAs?
posted by tobascodagama at 2:24 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]

I'm a sailor of much smaller boats and I'm aghast at what I'm reading here. Fishing boats are better equipped to avoid collisions. I'm absolutely astonished that AIS (the electronic ship identification system) is not integrated into their navigation system. On a 40 foot sailboat, that system detects other boats, projects their track and your track and sounds a VERY loud alarm if a potential collision is detected. That they rely exclusively on radar in hectic shipping lanes is almost impossible to believe.
posted by Lame_username at 2:28 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]

Fishing boats are better equipped to avoid collisions.

Yeah, several times while I was reading I had the thought of, "holy shit, the Deadliest Catch captains are better equipped to deal with this than the US Navy."

The technological lags are just unbelievably negligent. Somewhat relatedly, last year I had to submit a recommendation letter for someone applying to a service academy and their portal informed me that in order to best acceess the recommendation site I should use Internet Explorer and, well, in retrospect that made at least one part of this article unsurprising.
posted by TwoStride at 4:10 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]

Also, from Part 2: Mabus said Davidson, once considered a possible successor, was angling to boost her political profile when she raised alarms. He readily acknowledged that he had been committed to building a stronger Navy through buying new ships.

“Quantity has a quality all of its own,” Mabus liked to say.

How so very American.
posted by TwoStride at 4:39 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]

"Quantity has a quality all of its own,”

(Cough/lend lease/ cough)
posted by clavdivs at 6:56 PM on February 9

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