NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Virginia – The skies were dark and the seas calm on June 17, 2017, when the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald crashed into the ACX Crystal, a Filipino-flagged freighter off the coast of Japan . The collision killed seven sailors and caused extensive damage to the destroyer. No injuries were reported on board the merchant vessel.
Two months later, the USS John S. McCain, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, entered the path of the tanker Alnic MC as the two ships crossed the congested Singapore Strait. As a result of the collision on August 21, 2017, 10 sailors aboard the McCain died and 48 were injured. The destroyer suffered more than $ 100 million in damage. No one was injured aboard the Alnic MC.
The collisions that killed 17 Sailors sent a shockwave through the Navy and caused a calculation in the service’s surface warfare community after investigations found that with fatigue and chronic maintenance issues , a simple lack of basic seamanship was a major factor in the accidents.
The Navy is working to address these issues with its Sailor Training Centers in Norfolk and San Diego. Part of regular training involves putting bridge crews to the test in full-size simulators so they can practice maneuvering a warship through a variety of scenarios.
âWe want to make sure that our junior officers go out to sea with the knowledge to handle the ship. How do we get it? We get it through simulations, âVice-Admiral Roy Kitchener, commander of naval surface forces, told the Washington Times in an interview.
Captain Chris Marvin, commanding officer of the USS San Jacinto, brought some of his officers to the Norfolk training center to practice Refueling, a method of transferring fuel and ammunition from one ship to another. The maneuver can be tricky because the two vessels must maintain the same course and the same speed with sufficient distance between them.
“There’s no real-world substitute, but it’s pretty close,” said Captain Marvin as Lt. jg Colton Drake, one of his more junior officers, watched the simulated freighter ahead.
In a matter of minutes, the ship on the film screen went from a point on the horizon to a life-size computer simulation. Lieutenant Drake adjusted his speed and sent orders for the warship to approach the merchant ship. Suddenly, a mechanical problem sent him tacking to the Navy ship.
“I wish I could have had these simulators when I was his age,” said Captain Marvin as Lt. Drake ordered the ship to move away, safe from the uncontrollable freighter. âWhen you’re driving an 8,000-ton ship no kidding, there’s not a lot of rope the boss is going to give you. In a simulator, I don’t have to worry about bending the metal.
Lt. Drake, who graduated from college in 2019, completed more than 90 hours of simulator training before reporting to the San Jacinto.
âIt makes everything go well on the bridge because you don’t get yelled at because you don’t understand something,â he said. “It was very helpful to me.”
Lt. Elizabeth Pecsok’s job as a navigator aboard the USS San Jacinto is to ensure that the guided missile cruiser passes safely from point A to point B. She said that regular training on the simulator is crucial.
âMy priority is safe navigation, and when we’re closer to land, that’s when it’s much more important,â Lt. Pecsok said.
The Navy’s surface warfare community may be at the heart of the service, but it often suffers funding cuts before its peers in the air force and submarine force. In a move to cut costs, the Navy in 2003 discontinued the Surface Warfare Officers School Division Officer’s Course, an intense five-month program for new officers.
The instruction was replaced by computer training via a CD container and whatever maritime skills a ensign or lieutenant (junior level) managed to acquire after being assigned to a ship.
âIt wasn’t a good idea. It hasn’t worked very well for us, âsaid Admiral Kitchener.
After 2017, the Navy conducted a comprehensive training review for Surface Warfare officers to provide weeks of intense training well in advance of reporting to a ship.
âPeople need a basic knowledge base. They also need time in a trainer, âsaid Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, Navy spokesperson and surface warfare officer. âWe had to concentrate on the essentials: seamanship, navigation and handling of ships. They all start from the same baseline.
The jury may be out on the Navy’s surface warfare community’s emphasis on shipboard training, but Captain Marvin said he notices the difference when junior officers show up on board. of San Jacinto.
âRight away you can tell that there is someone who has experience under his belt because [the simulators] are there, âhe said. âThey’re doing the right thing on the bridge.
Retired Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, a veteran surface warfare officer now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the Navy is on the right track with its renewed focus on readiness training. Still, he said it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
âUntil you find the right balance between operations, maintenance and training, you will have a challenge,â he said. âThe minute there is budget pressure, it seems benign neglect is being applied to the surface warfare community. This is not a place to take risks. People are going to die, and we have seen it.
Under the post-2017 guidelines, surface warfare officers will undergo regular simulator training to hone their âboat drivingâ skills.
“Even if you have ordered a [guided missile destroyer] before and you’re going to command a cruiser, you still have to pass an assessment before you indulge that ship, âAdmiral Kitchener said. “If you fail, you don’t go.”
The Navy eventually plans to have ship handling simulators at several major bases such as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Rota, Spain; and Yokosuka, Japan.
Admiral Kitchener said the goal is to ensure that every Navy ship has access to a reliable place to consolidate the skills of the crew as a team by rehearsing in realistic scenarios until that they can “play like an orchestra, perfectly in tune”.
âOur seafarer skills training resources are invaluable. With these strong programs in place, we can extend our focus on high-end combat training, âhe said.