Fatigue and training gaps spell disaster at sea, sailors warn

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision in Singapore waters on Aug 21, 2017. PHOTO REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Two deadly collisions between high-tech destroyers and easy-to-spot, slow-moving cargo ships in a little over two months have stunned many in the US Navy and sent top leaders scrambling for answers.

But shipboard veterans had long seen signs of trouble. Factor in a shrinking navy performing the same duties as a larger fleet did a decade ago, constant deployments that leave little time to train and relentless duties that require sailors driving 9,000-tonne vessels to endure sleepless stretches that would be illegal for bus drivers and avoidable accidents can happen, current and former officers said.

"What seems impossible - that two ships could hit in the middle of the ocean - becomes very real," said Robert McFall, a former navy lieutenant commander who served as the operations officer of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald in 2014. "If you are not at your best, events can start that lead to a disaster."

Since the loss of 17 sailors after the Fitzgerald collided with a freighter near Tokyo in June, and a second destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with a tanker on Aug 21 while approaching Singapore, navy investigators have been piecing together the causes of the fatal crashes. Congress has scheduled hearings next month that will include top commanders and safety auditors.

Officers said the accidents were almost certainly influenced by systemic problems that persist despite repeated alarms from congressional watchdogs and the navy's own experts.

In interviews, more than a dozen current and former ship commanders who served in the western Pacific said the strain on the navy's fleet there had caused maintenance gaps and training shortfalls that had not been remedied or had received only cursory attention as leaders focused on immediate missions.

Compounding the stress, the officers and crew said, the navy allows 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.

The navy recognises that safety problems may go beyond what occurred on the two destroyers, and its examination of whether systemic issues contributed to the accidents will also review ship operations and episodes at sea over the past decade, with a focus on the western Pacific.

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