Navy Orders New Training After Deadly Ship Collisions

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WASHINGTON — After a string of deadly accidents in the western Pacific this year, the Navy’s top admiral said on Thursday he has ordered ship crews around the world to receive more training in basic safety, seamanship and navigation, and directed new procedures to ensure vessels are fully certified for a growing set of complex missions.

The officer, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, described in an interview and at a Pentagon briefing several corrective measures that are designed to address gaps and inconsistencies in operations, training and equipment that contributed to two collisions that left 17 sailors dead.

The changes, most of which were outlined in a comprehensive review the admiral ordered after the accidents and made public on Thursday, would likely cost $400 million to $500 million over the next five to six years, he said.

“Recent experience has shown that if we’re not careful, we can become overstretched, overextended,” Admiral Richardson told reporters. “And if we take our eye off the fundamentals, we become vulnerable to mistakes at all levels of command.”

His comments came a day after the Navy released two chilling reports that told of missed warnings, chains of errors and frantic American sailors fighting to save their shipmates — in accidents that the admiral called “preventable.”

Seven sailors were killed in June when the destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a container ship near Japan. And 10 sailors died in August when the John S. McCain — another destroyer, named after Senator John McCain’s father and grandfather — collided with an oil tanker while approaching Singapore.

The broader review, conducted by Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the head of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., focused on the Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan. But the report’s findings and recommendations will affect Navy ships worldwide, and to some extent, the service’s aviation and submarine branches.

The Seventh Fleet is the Navy’s largest and busiest, consisting of 20,000 sailors and 50 to 70 vessels, including about a dozen cruisers and destroyers. Even as the Navy has shrunk overall in recent years, its missions have grown to meet demands in a region that has become increasingly unstable with a rising China and North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

Despite repeated warnings from congressional watchdogs and the Navy’s own experts over the past several years, Navy ship commanders and their chains of command have more recently approved waivers to expiring certifications of standards so long as temporary steps were put in place to mitigate the risks.

As of June, 37 percent of the certifications for the crews of cruisers and destroyers based in Japan had expired, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. That was more than a fivefold increase in the percentage of expired certifications for the crews of those ships since the G.A.O.’s report in May 2015.

Navy officials found that commanders came to believe these lower standards were the new normal.

“The risks that were taken in the Western Pacific accumulated over time, and did so insidiously,” Admiral Davidson’s review concluded, adding the accidents stemmed from “an unrecognized accumulation of risk that resulted in ships not ready to safely operate at sea.”

“While that ‘can-do’ attitude culture has served us well in crisis and combat for decades, it does not relieve our commanders of the need to continuously assess, mitigate and accept risk,” the review continued.

In response, the Navy is revamping its scheduling process for ship operations in region, assessing the readiness standards for all ships based in Japan, and a creating a new naval office in the Western Pacific specifically to ensure those standards do not erode.

Compounding the stress of the increasing operations, officers and crew have said the Navy has allowed ships to rely on grueling watch schedules that leave captains and crews exhausted, even though the service ordered submarines to abandon similar schedules two years ago. A G.A.O. report from May said sailors were on duty up to 108 hours each week.

Navy officials have now ordered more sleep for crews and no more 100-hour workweeks for sailors. The new rules essentially will adopt studies by the Naval Postgraduate School to develop a shorter watch schedule to match circadian rhythms, which uses three hours of watch duty and nine hours off.

The Navy will also buy new equipment, such as additional simulators to be used in the increased training programs and updated search radars that can more effectively track nearby vessels.

Ships steaming in crowded waters, like those near Singapore and Tokyo, will now broadcast their positions, as do other vessels. Until now, most Navy ships had the Automatic Identification System devices on board, but did not turn them on to prevent other countries, like China, from easily tracking them.

Before Admiral Davidson’s report was made public on Thursday, the Navy had already adopted a range of new measures based on lessons collected from a 24-hour safety stand-down conducted over the summer. Those steps included standardized rules for watch teams on the bridge when the captain is not present; new reporting requirements for major equipment failures and near misses; and manually tracking vessels that come within 5,000 yards of a Navy ship to avoid collisions.

Immediately after the collision, there were some suspicions that the Navy ships’ internal systems had been hacked and interfered with. But Admiral Richardson in the interview ruled out any cyber intrusions in the two deadly accidents, although he said the Navy will now add that to the list of factors to examine in future collision investigations.