What’s really wrong with the Navy?

After 40 years of covering stuff and reading several news outlets daily, sometimes the contrasts still cause me to pause in wonder. Yesterday, a solar eclipse riveted millions. Writers at a couple of outlets criticized 11-year-old Barron Trump for the clothes he wore disembarking from Air Force One. Chelsea Clinton came to the child’s defense on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Navy and Marine Corps divers continued their search-and-rescue operations for 10 missing sailors from the stricken U.S.S. John S. McCain. This morning, “missing” became “remains.” I guess we all knew this would be the sad outcome. The second ramming of a Navy ship this summer brings the total loss of life to 17 sailors. No doubt another skipper is headed to a desk job, if he stays in the Navy at all.

Navy ships had two other, non-lethal collisions two other times this year, including a grounding.

In some sense, it’s a testament to resiliency that the crew corrected the ship’s list after the collision and moved it under its own power into the Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. But it also shows just how fragile even battleship hulls can be when struck in just the right way.

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Military life, outside of combat, has inherent dangers. Naval vessels aren’t cruise ships. You’re constantly dealing with dangerous equipment and stockpiles of ordnance in spartan conditions. The McCain, while not in active combat at the time of its hit by a commercial tanker, was nevertheless engaged in patrolling a sensitive area of the world.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered the Pacific fleet to review its training and general seamanship. Investigators into the McCain incident will focus on who should have seen and done what.

But the Navy might be facing a deeper question — a question that rolls right up to the mall in Washington, D.C. Photos of the McCain show, damage aside, a ship that’s no berth queen. The McCain looks like it’s been underway for a while, streaked with rust here and there. Somehow that’s emblematic of a Navy doing longer deployments with fewer ships, people and dollars. Military officers have been testifying at budget hearings for years now about adequacy and readiness. Every agency sandbags its budget requests, but have military funds gotten too austere?

Seamanship and bridge watch training are worth looking into. But now the country has a situation in which it’s down two valuable ships in a volatile part of the world. It’s lost 17 precious sailors for no good reason. A wider investigation by an independent auditor should look at these questions:

  • How do ship deployments, in terms of length and manpower, compare to those five, 10 and 20 years ago?
  • How do ratios of training, operational, maintenance and personnel dollars compare in the same periods?
  • Are collision avoidance and other basic operating systems too reliant, or not reliant enough, on technology?
  • Given four collisions or groundings in eight months, how adequately rigorous are training and promotion qualifications for the commanding ranks? How adequate is the pipeline of personnel, enlisted and from the academy? If it’s inadequate, how come?

The captain will get the immediate blame, or at least the responsibility. He knew that possibility the moment he accepted the keys. But it’s important he’s not simply made the fall guy for wider, policy and systemic failings.