The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan, June 17, 2017 (U.S. Navy photo)
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Shortly after seven sailors died aboard USS Fitzgerald when she collided with a merchant ship off Japan in 2017, I wrote that the Fitzgerald's watch team could have been mine. My ship had once had a close call with me on watch, and I had attempted to explain how such a thing could happen. "Operating ships at sea is hard, and dangerous. Stand enough watches, and you'll have close calls," I wrote at the time. "When the Fitzgerald's investigation comes out, I, for one, will likely be forgiving."
The investigations, both public and private, are out, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report assessing the changes to training implemented since the collisions.
As a Navy “blackshoe” surface warfare officer, I saw firsthand how our fleet’s leaders have more missions than they have ships to fill them. I watched flag staff in a command center wrestle with operational problems that would have been easier if they’d had more hulls, more ships, of just about any kind of surface combatant. The Navy’s go-to workhorse destroyers are too expensive to fill the gap, and its recent small-ship programs have been plagued with problems.
As I watched the video of the stricken USS Fitzgerald limping to her pier, I felt nauseated. I noticed things that non-sailors might miss. Firehoses over the side, water pouring out of them, hooked to portable damage control pumps. Exhausted damage control teams on deck, heads in their hands, where normally there’s no sitting.