Congressional members look for answers to Navy crashes
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 7, 2017
WASHINGTON — In a sobering review of two major warship crashes this summer, Navy officials assured congressional members Thursday that they will get to the bottom of the causes behind the deadly incidents.
Navy Vice Adm. Bill Moran told members during a hearing of a House Armed Services subcommittee that the service will unravel what led to the separate crashes of the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald that left 17 sailors dead.
Moran and Navy Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall testified before a packed congressional hearing room.
Among those in attendance was Rachel Eckels, who was recognized by committee members several times. She is the mother of Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., who died in the McCain crash.
“Thank you for being with us today and for the enormous sacrifice that you and your family have made for this country,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said at the start of Thursday’s hearing.
The Eckels were there to hear congressional members, including House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, raised tough questions on how to stop the flow of deadly crashes.
“What is preventing the next one from happening?” asked Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J.
“You have my promise we will get to the bottom of these mishaps,” Moran told lawmakers. “We will leave no stone unturned. We will be accountable to you, to our sailors and to the American public.”
Days after the McCain collision, which left 10 dead, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who led the Navy’s 7th Fleet, was relieved of his command. In addition, Navy officials ordered a pause of fleets worldwide and directed a review of surface fleet operations.
At the hearing, John H. Pendleton, director of Defense Capabilities and Management for the Government Accountability Office, presented an extensive agency report examining factors leading up to the crashes.
In written testimony, Pendleton said the Navy has been woefully behind on addressing a long list of outstanding and urgent readiness issues. The agency highlighted among its largest concerns an increase in the number of ships based overseas, crew-size reductions that have contributed to overworked sailors and a possible increase in safety risks as well as an inability to complete maintenance on time.
For example, the agency report states it found more than one-third of needed warfare certifications for Japan-based cruiser and destroyer crews had expired. The agency had reported on this concern during a May 2015 report and revisited the issue for Thursday’s hearing.
“As of June 2017, 37 percent of the warfare certifications for cruiser and destroyer crews homeported in Japan had expired, and over two-thirds of the expired certifications – including mobility-seamanship and air warfare – had been expired for 5 months or more,” the report stated. “This represents more than a five-fold increase in the percentage of the expired warfare certifications for these ships since our May 2015 report.”
The Navy has 277 ships, a 17 percent decline from its 333 ships nearly two decades ago, as efforts to maintain a significant presence abroad continues, Pendleton noted.
As the hearing was taking place, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a statement on the crashes, expressing deep concerns over the report’s findings and pointed at Congress for its role in the deadly incidents.
“Years of budget cuts have forced our military to try to do too much with too little,” McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in the statement. “We must all do better — Navy leaders must hold our ships to higher readiness standards and request the necessary resources, and Congress must provide the resources required to ensure the safety of our men and women in uniform.”
Previous GAO findings also highlighted the Navy’s longer deployments for sailors, shortened training and reduced or delayed maintenance to meet high operational demands. Already, the agency said it has laid out nearly a dozen recommendations to address such concerns, but so far, the Navy has only addressed one.
The agency also has found the Navy has doubled the number of ships based overseas, which has resulted curtailed training periods. In addition, it found during a recent 5-year period, maintenance overruns on more than 60 percent of surface ships has resulted in more than 6,000 lost operational days. And in some cases, the agency said, sailors are working more than 100 hours per week, boosting overworking and safety concerns.
“The notion they are working 100-hour work weeks is very terrifying for them and for us,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn.
Moran continued to assure members that the service will do everything they can to address the ongoing safety and readiness concerns.
The Navy family stands with “hearts broken, but determined to investigate thoroughly all the facts and to learn to become a better Navy at the end of this,” he said. “We have an absolute responsibility to keep sailors safe from harm.
Rachel Eckels, mother of Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., who died in the collision incident involving the USS John S. McCain, listens to testimony during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES