The Crash of the USS Fitzgerald: What Happened and What Comes Next?

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The Crash of the USS Fitzgerald: What Happened and What Comes Next?

Japan-based destroyer suffers massive damage, highlights dangers of operating at sea.

The Crash of the USS Fitzgerald: What Happened and What Comes Next?
Credit: US Navy

News broke this weekend that a forward-deployed U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, had been damaged in a collision with a container ship, the ACX Crystal, off the coast of Japan in the early hours of Saturday morning. Worse, it was reported at the time that there were a number of serious injuries that required medical evacuation by Japan Coast Guard helicopters (including the ship’s commanding officer), that several major compartments were flooded, and that seven sailors were missing.

Once Fitzgerald made it back that evening to her homeport in Yokosuka, about 20 nautical miles south of Tokyo, a Navy statement declared that it was unclear how long it would take “to gain access to the [flooded] spaces in order to methodically continue the search for the missing.” While U.S. and Japanese planes and ships had been searching for the missing sailors in the vicinity of the collision, the Navy clearly believed that their remains were likely trapped in flooded berthing compartments where the sailors had gone to sleep only hours before. By mid-morning the next day those fears were confirmed.

All ships at sea are bound by the provisions of an international treaty that defines the rules ships must follow to avoid collisions, delineating the different situations ships can meet each other in. According to these rules, one vessel is designated the “give way” vessel, and is obligated to avoid the other, called the “stand on” vessel, which must not alter its course or speed while the “give way” maneuvers to avoid it. U.S. naval officers that stand watch on the bridge, where the ship is controlled and navigated from, are tested on those rules regularly.

However, it’s possible the two ships had different interpretations of the type of situation they were in, perhaps leading each to believe the other was obliged to avoid them. Bryan McGrath, a retired U.S. naval officer who commanded a similar ship to the Fitzgerald, explained how easily a situation where one ship is crossing in front of the other can be confused for one where a ship is simply overtaking the other. In the crossing scenario, rules dictate that the ship to the left stays out of the ship to the right’s way. In an overtaking situation, the ship overtaking the other is obligated to stay out of the slower vessel’s way.

Confusing a crossing situation for an overtaking situation is especially easy to do if the angle between the two ships is very shallow, as the damage to ACX Crystal’s port (left) bow and the visible damage to the starboard (right) side of the Fitzgerald’s superstructure suggests. It’s possible, then, that the Fitzgerald believed the ACX Crystal was overtaking them, obligating the larger ship to stay out of the destroyer’s way, while the ACX Crystal perceived the Fitzgerald to be crossing in front of them (as seems to have been the case), obligating the destroyer to stay out of their way.

But regardless of whatever confusion preceded the collision, the rules also require “stand on” vessels to act if they perceive the “give way” vessel is failing to act, or act sufficiently, to avoid a collision.

While it remains too soon to know what exactly happened, early reports that the ACX Crystal made sharp turns roughly half an hour before the collision generated speculation that a large ship making radical maneuvers could have set off a chain of events that led to the incident. But Japanese authorities now believe that the collision happened nearly an hour earlier than previously understood, implying that any radical course changes by the ACX Crystal were in response to the collision, not a contributor to it.

If the collision did happen closer to 1:30 in the morning rather than 2:30, it’s possible that the collision occurred as shifts were turning over on the Fitzgerald (and possibly on the ACX Crystal as well) – a period with a heightened risk of confusion or distraction on the bridge. On most U.S. Navy ships, overnight shifts, called “watches” are typically from 10 pm to 2 am and from 2 am to 7 am. Under this standard rotation, the new watch team might still have been acclimating itself to the situation it found itself in, or the off-going shift could have been distracted, fatigued, and anticipating handing the situation off and getting a few hours of sleep before the regular workday kicked off at 7 am. The investigations into the incident will pay particular attention to these potential human and organizational factors.

At about 30,000 tons, the ACX Crystal is about three times heavier than the Fitzgerald. Her higher freeboard – the distance between the water and the top of the hull – meant that her bow was high enough to crush the Fitzgerald’s superstructure above the hull, including a nearly direct impact on the commanding officer’s cabin, accounting for his serious injuries. But the more serious damage happened below the water line. Large vessels often have massive bulbous bows to make them more stable, but in a collision they can also act as battering rams. The ACX Crystal’s bulbous bow made a large rupture in the Fitzgerald’s hull below the waterline, flooding a large machinery space, the radio room, and, tragically, two berthing compartments.

The Fitzgerald’s crew, tired and wet, worked through the night to save their ship from foundering, contain the flooding, and slowly make their way back to port on backup navigation systems. The pictures of her coming into Yokosuka harbor with her bow low in the water and listing to starboard testify to the enormous damage she sustained, the toughness of her design, the tenacity of her crew, and the remarkable feats of seamanship to save her.

Strategically, this collision takes away a critical Navy asset in the Western Pacific. Though Fitzgerald is one of the oldest Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the U.S. fleet, she has been upgraded to perform Ballistic Missile Defense missions (all the more important given North Korea’s recent stunning advances in missile and nuclear technology) and is outfitted with the Navy’s most advanced anti-submarine warfare equipment.

When the USS Cole was bombed in 2000, it required over a year of repairs, and nearly another two before it deployed operationally again. While the Navy is still assessing the extent Fitzgerald’s damage, it will not be returning to service quickly, and Navy officials are already considering loading her on a heavy lift ship (as was done for the USS Cole) and transporting her back to the United States for repairs.

This move would be unsurprising, even though the Fitzgerald’s home port in Yokosuka has one of the Navy’s most capable ship yards. The ships forward deployed to Japan are probably the hardest worked in the fleet, and the Fitzgerald’s repairs would likely consume too much of the Yokosuka yard’s capacity to keep up with the maintenance demands of the ships there that are still operational.

The flip-side of how best to repair Fitzgerald is how the Navy will decide to mitigate her loss to the theater. As stated, the U.S. ships in Japan are some of the hardest working in the fleet, with the latest upgrades and equipment, and the Navy will have to figure out how to fill Fitzgerald’s missions, probably by sending a new ship to Japan to take her place, or surge-deploying additional ships from the United States to the Western Pacific for extended periods.

Regardless, almost any solution is suboptimal. Generations of Fitzgerald crews have operated almost exclusively in the Western Pacific, working with partner navies, getting to know the geography, tactics, and building operational experience uniquely applicable to Western Pacific conflict scenarios. Any new ship coming in to take her place will face a steep learning curve.

The various investigations into the collision, including the Navy’s legal and safety investigations, as well as investigations by the U.S. and Japanese Coast Guards, will collectively determine what happened, how, and why. Some of those investigations will also apportion responsibility between the two ships, and the U.S. Navy will hold individuals on Fitzgerald accountable, either for causing the collision or failing to avoid it.

Some commentary has been incredulous that large ships with well-trained crews and the latest electronic gear could ever hit each other in this day and age. Collisions between modern ships with such stunning loss of life might seem out of a bygone era, but the collision highlights the challenges of operating at sea, especially in the busy Western Pacific.

My first ship in the U.S. Navy, the USS Stethem, often shared a pier with the Fitzgerald in Yokosuka. They are nearly identical, commissioned only a week apart in 1995, and they plied the same busy waters around Japan, worked with the same allies, conducted the same exercises, and their crews felt the same frustrations and stresses unique to operating in the region.

I’d like to think that I would never have let something like this happen if I had the bridge watch. But I spent enough long nights on the bridge surrounded by dozens of radar contacts and the dim lights of other ships on the horizon, exhausted from a long day that didn’t permit the extra hours of sleep I knew I probably needed, trying to discern what those lights meant through my binoculars, and looking at my radar scope trying to decide whether it or my eyes were fooling me, to understand well how it could.

But whatever the investigations determine, this much is true now – that seven sailors went to bed on Friday night without a second thought that they would awake the next morning to the shrill tones of a bosun’s pipe, get on the mess line for breakfast, and start the ship’s routine all over again, just as they had the day before. Their nation was not at war. They were not conducting complex multi-ship exercises, or in unfamiliar waters, and they trusted implicitly that the officers on watch while they slept would keep them safe.

The Seventh Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, would not speculate on the conditions of their last moments, but we know it was probably dark, loud, confusing, and filling with water. For all the attention that training, tactics, and weapons systems understandably gathers, it is a sober reminder that Navy sailors are above all mariners, else it does not matter whether they are warriors.