What Happened to the USS John McCain?

As these words are being written, a multi-nation search and rescue effort is still underway to locate ten sailors missing in the Pacific Ocean east of Singapore after their ship,USS McCain, collided with an oil tanker on Monday.

Surface and aircraft from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the U.S. scanning the seas for the missing servicemen include patrol ships, tugboats and helicopters.

President Donald Trump said his “thoughts & prayers” were with the crew of the ship.

Arizona Senator John McCain (the ship is named after U.S. Navy admirals who were his grandfather and father) said he’s “keeping America’s sailors aboard the USS John S. McCain in our prayers tonight — [we] appreciate the work of search & rescue crews.”

The ship, a guided-missile destroyer, made it to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base on its own power, but photos showed what the Navy termed “significant damage”: a gaping, oval-shaped indentation more than 20 feet wide and seven feet high from the water line in the port side of the vessel.

Indeed, it is hard to understand how it could have happened.

Retired Navy Captain Kevin Eyer told CBS News that two huge vessels ramming into each other in the immensity of the Pacific is not as inexplicable as it sounds. The traffic in those waters, where a quarter of all trade in goods and oil is carried, is exceptionally heavy.

“You have dozens of ships within, perhaps, a five-square-mile box, all milling about,” Eyer explained. A graphic showing the crowded shipping lanes in the region looks like a big bunch of red dots almost one on top of another.

But these vessels are well-equipped and their crews specially trained to avoid just such collisions.

As David Larter, a U.S. Navy veteran, told The Guardian on Monday, “The number of breakdowns that have to occur for something like this to happen make them a rare occurrence. Sailors monitor radars ’round the clock, they have multiple sailors standing watch on the bridge which also has a radar, and they have at least one lookout posted at the back end of the ship to watch for exactly these kinds of situations.”

All the more disturbing is the fact that this is not the first but the Navy’s fourth such accident since February. “Collisions like these are extremely rare,” said Larter, “and two in one summer, both from 7th Fleet based in Japan, is stunning.”

The Navy cruiser USS Antietam ran aground, dumping more than 1,000 gallons of oil in Tokyo Bay in February. In May, another cruiser, USS Lake Champlain, hit a South Korean fishing vessel, fortunately without serious injuries.

The Navy is presumably also stunned. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that the Navy will conduct a “broad investigation” into these incidents.

The previous one this summer, involving the missile carrier USS Fitzgerald, caused the deaths of seven sailors. The Navy’s investigation concluded that the Fitzgerald’s collision with a merchant vessel in June “was avoidable, and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship.”

The Navy entrusts the lives of many men and women as well as the stewardship of hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware to its senior officers at sea, and correspondingly tends to be unforgiving in its judgment of whether those officers carried out their responsibilities as ordered. The skipper of the Fitzgerald and two top sailors were relieved of their command for losing “situational awareness” in the hours before the disaster. While no criminal guilt was found, it is likely that their careers in the Navy are essentially over.

It is, of course, premature to speculate as to the cause of this latest tragedy. But the string of accidents is no accident.

An active-duty Navy officer suggested to Fox News that the fault may lie not with the heavily-trafficked sea lanes, nor with the officers and sailors themselves, but with the training they receive.

“It’s not the same level of training you used to get,” the officer said.

Beyond the situational data, that is something that certainly needs to be examined. If the Navy’s officers are falling short of performance standards, it has to be asked why.

Years of stinting on Pentagon budgets can affect the military in various ways, and this could be one of them. Training in the handling of these huge ships with all their advanced technology takes time and money. The U.S. has to take a hard look at whether it is investing adequately in such training, and if the admirals are being given all the tools they need to provide for national defense without undue risk to the servicemen and women.

It also cannot be overlooked that both the McCain and the Fitzgerald are ballistic missile defense ships that would likely be called into action if a confrontation develops with North Korea. The U.S. will need those ships and their crews in such a crisis, and it cannot afford to have them out of action because of accidents.

But these are considerations for tomorrow. For today, the overriding concern must be for the lives of the missing sailors. The thoughts and prayers of all Americans are with them and their families.