On Monday (local time), while operating off Malaysia's east coast, the USS John S. McCain collided with a Liberian chemical tanker.
Ten sailors are missing, five were injured, and a rescue operation is underway.
This marks the fourth collision in two years, and the Navy is understandably concerned. A totality-of-fleet investigation is now underway, and the chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, has ordered a temporary suspension of operations. He clearly fears the fleet has been operating at an untenable tempo.
When at sea, the right balance is hard to strike. Morale (keeping people occupied) and preparedness (ready to fight) motivate Navy commanders to work their sailors very hard. The result is a naval force that matches immense human skill to combat capability. Still, when sailors are overworked and tired, the consequences can be disastrous.
That may or may not be the situation with the John S. McCain.
Indeed, the early evidence here suggests that McCain's crew may not have been the primary responsible party. After all, photos show that the collision occurred at a port-aft (left-rear) section of the vessel. That would suggest the Liberian tanker was negligent in its course and speed. In the highly congested waters where the collision took place, the difference between collision or safe passage is measured in a matter of seconds.
Regardless, the Navy will probably respond to this latest incident by reassigning McCain's command crew to shore duties. Conversely, if admirals pushed the McCain crew beyond breaking point, they won't be punished.
That speaks to a long-term problem in the Navy: the insulation of higher ranks from scrutiny. As former naval officer and Observer columnist, John Schindler explained late last year, the Navy has fostered a double-standards-based approach to discipline and leadership. The lower ranks take the heat while the higher ranks are kept in their warm cocoons alongside their personal chefs.
Unfortunately, that's just the tip of the iceberg. In recent years, the admirals have failed to orient the Navy toward maximum national efficacy. This is best evidenced by the many billions of dollars they have wasted developing ships like the boondoggle Zumwalt-class destroyer. Such vessels look like sexy spaceships but are poorly suited to counter rising threats from China. And for many reasons, China is where America's naval focus must rest. In addition, the U.S. Navy only recently began an effort to update its ship-to-ship missile capabilities. That means a major gap in capability should a conflict with China or Russia occur.
All that said, we are lucky to have such talented and skilled young sailors in the fleet. If nothing else, Monday's incident is a human tragedy for 10 American families. We should remember them.
"Non sibi sed patriae" is inscribed above the chapel doors at the U.S. Naval Academy: "Not for self, but for country."