My reaction to last night’s at-sea collision between USS McCain and the merchant vessel Alnic MC in the Straits of Malacca was likely more visceral and emotional than that of most of my readers. Not only did I serve years at sea in both the U.S. Navy and merchant marine, qualified as Officer of the Deck (OOD) on two Navy combatants, and raised my merchant license to that of Chief Mate, but in 1988 my ship was in a collision in the North Sea between the Hayler and a German navy oiler (I was not on the bridge, of course — but sleeping). I thus know of what I speak. I had a whole ‘nother life before becoming a CIA Station Chief!
Collisions at sea not only reduce the number of available naval units available to the U.S. in a crisis — USS McCain (named after Senator McCain’s Father and grandfather) is a Pacific Fleet unit involved in the vicinity of both the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea — but are costly and somewhat humiliating losses of prestige. Do other navies suffer such accidents? Certainly — but the U.S. Navy, being by far the most active on the world stage, has a higher profile; its level of activity ensures somewhat greater risk (no collisions if one sits in port). This however, is not an excuse — the fact is that U.S. naval vessels seem to suffer from a greater incidence of at-sea collisions than other navies.
Why is this? The reasons are varied and complex, but I will explain some of them here.
This latest collision was in the Straits of Malacca — an exceedingly narrow body of water linking the Indian Ocean to (eventually) the Pacific. Fully 50 percent of the world’s shipping traffic transits this strait daily — I myself many times made this passage several as a bridge watch stander on cargo ships.
So to answer the first logical question, how do vessels even collide in such vast oceans? The answer is that little of the world’s seas are transited. Trade routes, “highways of the sea,” so to speak, constitute at most 10 percent of the oceans — and that's where 99 percent of the ships are. There is only one efficient way to sail from San Francisco to Yokohama — and its not via Bali! Collisions at Sea, like any unnatural disasters, must be thought of as consisting of a chain of events. Anyone doing something right in this chain prevents the casualty. “Close calls,” whether they be in your highway driving or elsewhere in one’s personal life, are by definition “Non-events.” The fact is that events years in the making can contribute to a collision at sea — and I believe this is what we are seeing — in spades.
Mankind has an unfortunate habit of laziness when technology is involved. That's why we have a surge in pedestrian deaths due to cell phone usage.
The preponderance of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and other automated ship systems have prompted the atrophy of traditional navigation and seamanship skills.
While at USMMA, I became adept at not only celestial navigation (sextant) but also coastal navigation (using buoys, lighthouses, and radar) — all potential officers had to, in those pre-GPS days of 1986. By the Gulf War, I was using a GPS the size of a large brick as Navigator aboard a U.S. cargo ship in the war zone — but used it to supplement my traditional navigation skills.
Radar is a key tool in not only navigation but in collision avoidance — but the systems were not “automatic” at that time — and certification required manual plotting of ten targets in simulators. Mind you, these were quals of which I speak were for merchant officers, laid out by the U.S. Coast Guard. Even 30 years ago, U.S. Naval vessels provoked skepticism amongst merchies (If it’s grey, keep away….”). We all knew U.S. Navy watch stander quals were much more informal, and their watch standers often less experienced than merchant personnel. I knew this especially, having served 1986-1989 on active duty.
Why is this? Merchant vessels have one purpose — getting from point A to Point B with the goods. Naval vessels have multiple missions — be they warfare, naval presence, search and rescue, etc. It is much more time-consuming to master these skills — and importantly, their accompanying technology. Navy watchstanders are usually junior officers — possibly Naval or maritime academy grads, but more likely NROTC graduates with little maritime background. How to transform them into a seaman in a short time? That’s the rub. This was accomplished for many years by attending a 4 month navy school inculcating such skills. Guess what happened? In the early 90s the Navy, looking to save money, shuttered its Surface Warfare Schools in Newport and Coronado — and placed its faith in new officers reporting to ships absolutely green and learning from computer-based tutoring and hands-on training (they were very recently reopened). We would never expect a naval aviator to just strap on an F-18 and go for a spin, or have a beat cop report prior to graduating from a Police Academy — but this is what we expected the U.S. surface force to do!
Even the Navy Academy, source of perhaps 20 percent of the Navy officer corps, and the center of the Navy universe, eliminated Celestial Navigation from its curriculum faced with the prospect of stuffing 10 lbs. of material in a 5 lb. bag.
Lets face it, there were only so many hours daily someone can devote to study (as a Navy JO at sea I worked 18 hour days for months on end). Budget cuts during sequestration results in more material breakdowns, and increased demand for PC indoctrination crowds out training time. The result is that the fine points of navigation and seamanship were allowed to atrophy. Junior officers, coming of age in a world of smart phones, keep their “heads down” on the bridge, over-reliant on technology. The navy in fact, deleted the evaluation category of seamanship from its fitness reports — which is like evaluating a pilot on everything except how he flies an aircraft! Disturbingly, our enemies know of our over reliance on tech — and that is why they now employ GPS-spoofing technology.
Commander Pacific Fleet has ordered a safety standdown. Let’s hope the Navy faces the elephant in the room, concede its overreliance on technology for navigation and seamanship, and goes back to the basics!
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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