On Jan. 16, the U.S. Navy announced that it has charged five officers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with negligent homicide, hazarding a vessel, and dereliction of duty in the deaths of 17 sailors who died as a result of the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain with commercial ships in 2017. A chief petty officer from the USS John S. McCain has also been charged with dereliction of duty.
These charges follow a range of administrative and non-judicial actions the Navy has taken against those directly involved in the mishaps as well as those in the higher chain of command. For example, the Navy has fired the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet; the commander of Task Force 70, which includes the aircraft carriers, destroyers, and cruisers in the 7th Fleet; and the commander of the relevant destroyer squadron. In addition, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has been notified that he will not be nominated to lead U.S. Pacific Command and the Navy has recommended that the senior officer overseeing surface warfare service-wide be removed from his position. This will result in the forced retirement of these senior officers.
Some argue that it would have been better for the Navy to ease out the officers in question, avoiding the spotlight of cross-examination by defense attorneys. Those people think the Navy should have chosen to avoid such scrutiny.
I believe the Navy has taken the right course. I think that this is a courageous decision by the our Navy to demonstrate to all — our political leadership, the American people and, most importantly, all members of the Navy itself — that those who are entrusted with the responsibility for the lives of our sailors will be held accountable for their failure to meet that responsibility.
In my opinion, a publicly announced court-martial proceeding that is open and transparent will have to be fair and will be seen as such. This, combined with the punishment, non-promotion, and forced retirement of others in the responsible chain of command demonstrates that the Navy holds its leaders accountable for their actions.
Furthermore, I think the Navy should be both praised and emulated by not only the other military services, but all government departments and agencies. While there may be some initial dismay at what conditions inside the Navy contributed to these tragic accidents, I believe the result will be that the Navy and its current leadership will be held in much higher regard across the board. If this causes any fearful Naval officers to retire or resign rather than take command of a ship, then the Navy and our nation will be better for it.
Lin Todd, Ph.D., is a former U.S. Army war planner, Middle East/North Africa foreign area officer and helicopter pilot. He was seconded by the State Department as a Deputy Head of Mission of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia 1997-1999 and served as Deputy Director of the MOD/Joint Staff Office of the Military Stabilization Program in Bosnia in 1996-1997. He also has served as an intelligence officer for DIA, the Joint Staff, and Central Command during Operation Desert Storm.