Earlier this year, ProPublica published a long but engaging article with sophisticated graphics (best viewed on a PC) about the collision of the 22- year -old, 7th Fleet, Arleigh Burke-class destroyer "Fitzgerald" with a massive container ship in the shipping lanes 12 miles off the coast of Japan in June 2017. The individual stories of selfless heroism by the crew to save their mates and their ship is inspiring but the bigger picture of dubious manpower and material readiness and poor decision making much higher up the ladder than the ship's unfortunate CO, should be concerning. All charges against the ship's CO, CDR Bryce Benson, who suffered a chronic, traumatic head injury, and Fitzgerald's tactical officer, Lt. Natalie Combs were dropped without explanation in April 2019, after Benson had been charged in 2018 with negligent homicide and those charges reduced later that year to dereliction of duty and hazarding a ship. The OOD at the time of the collision, Lt(jg) Sarah Coppock, who was one of 18 sailors facing NJP plead guilty at her court-martial in 2018 to dereliction of duty and acknowledged her role in the death of 7 sailors who drowned in their berth compartment where they had been sleeping at 0130 when the 39,500 ton container ship ACX Crytal rammed into the starboard side of the 9,000 ton destroyer. Benson had planned to fight the allegations against him during a court-martial trial, but the decision by prosecutors to nix all criminal charges ended the possibility of what likely would have been an embarrassing trial for the Navy. Still, Benson and his legal team penned an 18-page rebuttal to his censure this past April that in closing, summarizes what would have been the theme of his trial defense,
"I do not believe my actions and decisions in command were unreasonable—prudent commanders in the same or similar circumstances would make the same calls I did, facing the same chances for failure. This is because few if any unit level commanders are in a position to accurately foresee, evaluate, and mitigate against the aggregated institutional risks imposed by a force generation model that keeps forward-deployed vessels undermanned, forecloses training for the same of operations, and deprives ships of needed maintenance. These conditions increase and compound operational risk borne by ship commanders and their crews. But at the unit level, accurately evaluating accumulated structural risks, and developing and implementing appropriately-calibrated measures to protect against organizational drift in those conditions, is almost impossible."
Two months after the Fitzgerald collision, another 7th Fleet Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collided with a Liberian tanker off the coast of Singapore and Malasia, killing ten of McCain's crew. On June 19, 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their report on the accident, finding the probable cause of the disaster was a "lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy, which resulted in insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures."
Earlier this month, the Navy announced that it would not hold a Board of Inquiry against Benson, amid accusations that top Navy brass had conspired to deny him a fair trial. A final decision on Benson's status, as he awaits medical retirement and whether he will be demoted, is expected next month (12/19). The Fitzgerald continues its $327 million repair at a shipyard in Mississippi, expected to be completed next year.