US Navy collisions: What's next?

How can the US Navy recover from the spate of accidents? By showing the appropriate level of concern. And so far, its swift and decisive actions suggest it will get to the bottom of the issue. Meanwhile, countries in the region with ships plying the busy Malacca Strait should also make sure their national laws comply with COLREGS, or the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

A collision with an oil tanker early on Monday morning left guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with a hole on its port side. Navigational safety requires every individual to be vigilant at all times, says the writer.
A collision with an oil tanker early on Monday morning left guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with a hole on its port side. Navigational safety requires every individual to be vigilant at all times, says the writer. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Navigational safety is on the minds of many in the Asia-Pacific region, due in part to Monday's collision between the USS John S. McCain and a commercial oil tanker on the maritime doorstep of the Malacca Strait.

This tragedy resulted in the loss of 10 United States sailors' lives and the injury of five others.

In response, the navies and maritime agencies of other nations, particularly those of Singapore and Malaysia, have surged into action to assist in the search, rescue and recovery operations at sea.

As any mariner could attest, the highest priority in these emergent situations is searching for survivors, recovering victims and comforting families.

But the next priority after responding to the emergency is to do what is necessary to reduce the likelihood of similar situations recurring in the future.

For the US Navy as an organisation, that post-incident task is all the more important, given that three other incidents involving navigational safety occurred this year in the Asia-Pacific region, the most recent of which involved a similar collision two months ago between USS Fitzgerald and a commercial cargo ship near Tokyo Bay.


The 13th-century Italian priest Thomas Aquinas once wrote: "If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever."

A collision with an oil tanker early on Monday morning left guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with a hole on its port side. Navigational safety requires every individual to be vigilant at all times, says the writer. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

While Aquinas was writing metaphorically about engaging the world outside of his church, the literal meaning of his words are equally true: Life at sea is inherently risky and many of those risks can only be managed, not eliminated.

The increasing amount of maritime traffic transiting the waterways of the world, especially every day through the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, makes it even more impressive that collisions and other safety incidents are not a more frequent occurrence.

While this might, at first glance, appear to be miraculous, it is actually attributable to something more earthly: effective adherence to a rules-based system of navigational safety, which starts with universal rules and information systems, continues with national implementation of those rules and adoption of those systems, and thereafter requires persistent vigilance.

While many observers first think about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea when discussing universal rules governing the oceans of the world, there is, in fact, a specific treaty focused solely on the matter of ensuring that ships operate safely at sea in relation to one another.

The Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, more commonly known as the COLREGS, is a treaty nearly every nation in the world has joined.

It sets out the "rules of the road" of how ships should navigate in relation to one another.

Yet, the effective adherence to those universal rules depends not upon some international tribunal or enforcement mechanism, but instead deliberately focuses upon the extent to which individual nations effectively implement those international rules into their domestic governance systems for both their government and non-government ships.

Four months ago, I was privileged to organise a workshop focused on the subject of effective national implementation of the COLREGS, an event which the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies co-sponsored with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and was held in downtown Singapore.

Maritime practitioners from 10 Asia-Pacific nations came together to share their best practices on how each country has implemented the COLREGS into their national governance systems.

Our workshop discussions concluded that effective implementation includes the following elements: comprehensive national laws, regulations, directives and policies; robust training programmes and qualification standards for appropriate personnel; routinised interaction and unit exercises; mandatory reporting protocols of incidents; thorough post-incident investigatory procedures; and serious post-incident personnel accountability systems.

What the participants took away from the workshop is that it is not enough to have these laws, programmes, standards, protocols, procedures and systems "on the books".

Navigational safety requires individual mariners, commanders, masters and senior leaders to remain forever vigilant to do all of them - all the time and every time.

In reaction to the USS John S. McCain collision along with these other recent incidents, a number of questions are being asked.

Why was the US Navy involved in each of these incidents? Is this purely coincidental or are there systemic problems that must be addressed? Have US military budget constraints or an increased operational tempo been contributing causes? Did information systems or steering systems malfunction? Are crew members receiving sufficient training on navigational safety? Was one or more of the incidents affected by some outside action, such as a cyber intrusion into the network systems of the ships?

These are all legitimate questions worth asking. From public statements by senior US Navy and defence officials, these and other questions will be examined and answered in the coming days, weeks and months of investigations and organisational soul-searching.


Here, I would like to share my views, drawing from my professional experience and academic research about the US' implementation of the COLREGS.

But I should add that, while I draw on my past experience in these organisations, these views are mine and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the US Department of Defence or any of its components.

I believe that the US has implemented the COLREGS through laws, programmes, protocols, procedures and systems.

Looking ahead, the US Navy finds itself at a juncture where the "thorough post-incident investigation procedures" element of implementation is critical.

As a US Navy lawyer who has provided legal advice to operational investigators and commanders on safety incidents throughout my career, I know that the navy's investigatory systems and procedures are appropriately in place to pursue and attain the necessary answers.

On a more personal note, as someone who has had the privilege to call the naval officer currently in charge of the US Pacific Fleet "my client" during prior job assignments, I am confident that Admiral Scott Swift has the honour, courage and commitment to ensure those difficult questions are answered honestly and thoroughly.

Early in my navy career, one of my supervisors shared an experience from his time as a legal adviser on the operational staff of a navy commander. An issue had arisen regarding the staff's workload and the admiral in command had come to this lawyer and several other members of the staff to ask their professional advice on what should be done.

When the lawyer briefed the chief of staff on his conversation with the commander, the seasoned chief of staff asked: "Did you show the appropriate level of concern?"

That simple story has stuck with me throughout my navy career, even becoming an unofficial motto. When I supervised a group of US Marine lawyers 10 years ago in Fallujah, Iraq, we shortened the motto to its acronym "Staloc" (showing the appropriate level of concern).

The need to show the appropriate level of concern was always at the front, not the back of our minds.

Fast forward to today: Immediately after Monday's collision, the US chief of naval operations directed a navy-wide "operational pause". The commander of US Fleet Forces Command initiated a fleet-wide, systemic review.

The commander of the US Pacific Fleet flew to Singapore immediately to get eyes on the situation, and then took the rare action of relieving the commander of US Seventh Fleet for "loss of confidence".

From these immediate actions, the world and Asia-Pacific region should see that the US Navy was "Staloc'd" - showing the appropriate level of concern.

I have no doubt that, in due time through just and proper investigations, the US Navy will get answers to legitimate questions and take all appropriate corrective actions.


What do these recent incidents mean for other nations? Sadly, at least one nation opposed to the US Navy's persistent presence in the waters of the Asia-Pacific region apparently tried to score political points from the USS John S. McCain collision.

One of its press spokespersons publicly stated it is "concerned about the threat and hidden danger posed by the relevant incident to the safety of navigation in the South China Sea and relevant waters".

That same nation's official newspaper published a political cartoon mocking the US Navy - while search, rescue and recovery operations for missing crew members were still under way.

To such nationalist hubris, I offer the oft-quoted proverb: "There but for the grace of God, go I."

In other words, these incidents could easily have happened to that nation or other nations.

The reality is that a number of nations in the Asia-Pacific region have increased or are increasing the budget and fleets of their respective navies, coast guards and other maritime law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, fishing boats are operating further and further from the coasts of their nations, as fish stocks either migrate away or become scarcer.

The same nation mentioned above is now leveraging its fishing boats as a "maritime militia", to either challenge the authority of foreign maritime law enforcement agencies in disputed waters or bolster competing territorial claims to disputed islands.

Due to this constellation of circumstances, incidents similar to the USS John S. McCain collision involving the ships of other nations could happen in the future. For these reasons, the lessons learnt through recent tragedy are ones worth considering by others in the region as well.

In particular, it might be prudent for other nations to self-assess their implementation of the COLREGS and other measures to ensure their vessels navigate safely at sea.

In short, increased maritime capabilities coupled with the more frequent interaction between vessels from multiple nations come the fundamental responsibility of all nations to ensure that the personnel operating their government and non-government vessels operate safely at sea. When it comes to navigational safety, we all must show the appropriate level of concern and maintain vigilance.

  • The writer is a judge advocate in the US Navy. He serves as a military professor at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, located in Honolulu, Hawaii. Previously, he served as the oceans policy adviser in the Office of the US Secretary of Defence.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline US Navy collisions: What's next?. Subscribe