Deadly US Navy collisions near Singapore, Japan caused by basic navigational errors: Inquiry

Deadly US Navy collisions near Singapore, Japan caused by basic navigational errors: Inquiry

McCain damage
The damage to the the commanding officer's Stateroom on the Fitzgerald. (Photo: US Navy) 

WASHINGTON: Two separate collisions between US Navy destroyers and commercial vessels in Singapore and Japan waters earlier this year were the result of a series of basic navigational errors and were “avoidable”, according to a US Navy report made public on Wednesday (Nov 1).

In the case of the John S McCain, the investigation concluded that the collision resulted from “a loss of situational awareness” while responding to mistakes in the operation of the ship’s steering and propulsion system while in waters with high traffic. 

MCain damage
Exterior damage to the USS McCain. (Photo: US Navy) 

Ten sailors were killed on Aug 21 after USS McCain collided with an oil tanker while approaching Singapore. In June, seven sailors were killed when another destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a container ship near Japan. 

The Navy has already dismissed a number of officers, including the commander of the Seventh Fleet, as a result of the collisions. 


A mistake led to confusion on board the USS McCain over who was actually steering the ship, as it entered the Middle Channel of the Singapore Strait at about 5.20am.

The ship's commanding officer noticed that the helmsman had difficulty maintaining course while also adjusting the throttles for speed control.

He ordered another crew member, known as the Lee Helm Station, to handle speed control - but without clear notification of his orders.

This unplanned change caused confusion, and inadvertently led to steering control being transferred to the Lee Helm Station without the knowledge of the watch team, the report said.

"The commanding officer had only ordered speed control shifted. Because he did not know that steering had been transferred to the Lee Helm, the helmsman perceived a loss of steering.

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The USS McCain being transported from Singapore waters. (Photo: US Navy) 

"Steering was never physically lost. Rather, it had been shifted to a different control station and watchstanders failed to recognise this configuration. "

The mistakes caused the ship to turn to the left into an area with heavily congested traffic, in close proximity to three ships, including the container ship Alnic.

McCain damage
Post-collision damage on Berthing 3 on USS McCain. (Photo: US Navy) 

"Although John S McCain was now on a course to collide with Alnic, the commanding officer and others on the ship’s bridge lost situational awareness," the report stated.

"No one on the bridge clearly understood the forces acting on the ship, nor did they understand the Alnic’s course and speed relative to John S McCain during the confusion."

Despite their close proximity, neither vessel sounded the five short blasts of whistle required by the International Rules of the Nautical Road for warning one another of danger, and neither attempted to make contact through bridge-to-bridge communications, the investigation found.

impact pic
Approximate Geometry and Point of Impact between USS John McCain and Alnic MC. (Photo: US Navy)

The USS McCain regained steering control three minutes later - but by then, the ship crossed in front of Alnic's bow and collided, creating an 8.5-metre hole in the US Navy ship.

The collision flooded one of the ship's berthings almost immediately. Only two of the 12 sailors in that space escaped.


A major contributing factor to the collision was the crew's "sub-standard level of knowledge". Multiple bridge watchstanders "lacked a basic level of knowledge" on the ship control console, in particular the transfer of steering and thrust control between stations, the report said.

"The senior-most officer responsible for these training standards lacked a general understanding of the procedure for transferring steering control between consoles."

The report also noted failures by the leadership to assign sufficient experienced officers to duties, as well as the failure of key officers to attend a navigation brief the previous afternoon.

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The damage inflicted on USS McCain after a collision with an oil tanker. (Photo: US Navy) 

"In the Navy, the responsibility of the commanding officer for his or her ship is absolute," the report said.

"Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the commanding officer. That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation."


In the case of the Fitzgerald, the report said that the crew and leadership on board failed to adhere to sound navigation practices, to carry out basic watch practices, to properly use available navigation tools and respond effectively in a crisis.

The officer of the deck realised only too late that the Fitzgerald was on a collision course with the container ship Crystal, and the other vessel also did not take any action to avoid the collision until it was too late.

FTZ sketch damage
The following spaces were flooded due to the hole in the side of the ship and proximity flooding. (Photo: US Navy) 

"The officer of the deck, the person responsible for safe navigation of the ship, exhibited poor seamanship by failing to maneuver as required, failing to sound the danger signal and failing to attempt to contact Crystal on bridge-to-bridge radio."

It added that the remainder of the watch team on the bridge failed to provide situational awareness regarding the situation.

Fitz damage 1
Interior damage to the Fitzgerald. (Photo: US Navy) 

"Fitzgerald's watch teams disregarded established norms of basic contact management and, more importantly, leadership failed to adhere to well-established protocols put in place to prevent collisions," the report said.

“Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision-making of the commanding officer,” the report said.

Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in the summary of the two reports: "Both of these accidents were preventable and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watch standers that contributed to the incidents."

Richardson added that the Navy "learns from mistakes" and is "firmly committed to doing everything possible to prevent an accident like this from happening again."

"We will spend every effort needed to correct these problems and be stronger than before," he added.

"We must do better."

Source: CNA/am