Navy Collisions May Have Killed More U.S. Troops in 2017 than War in Afghanistan

Expert says Navy nearing its readiness 'breaking point'

Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) arrives pier side at Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore following a collision
Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) arrives pier side at Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore following a collision / Getty Images

U.S. Navy ship collisions in the western Pacific may have killed more American troops so far this year than the war in Afghanistan, illuminating critical readiness challenges facing the military branch.

The collision of the USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker east of Singapore on Monday may have brought to 17 the number of sailors killed by Navy accidents in 2017, compared with 11 service members killed in Afghanistan, an active war zone, NPR reported first, citing the Military Times and icasualties.org.

The Navy announced Thursday it had suspended search-and-rescue operations for 10 missing sailors after recovering "some remains" inside the flooded compartments of the USS McCain. The White House issued an official statement Tuesday expressing condolences for the "United States sailor fatalities." The Navy has officially declared two dead.

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Divers Thursday night recovered the remains of 26-year-old electronics technician Dustin Louis Doyon. The Navy recovered the first body, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenneth Aaron Smith, 22, earlier in the week.

The Navy and Marine Corps said they will continue recovery efforts inside the ship's sealed compartments for the nine who remain missing despite the suspension of rescue efforts.

Tom Callender, senior research fellow for defense programs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the prospect of the Navy losing 17 sailors this year is striking, particularly given the casualties were likely preventable.

Callender, a 20-year Navy veteran, said several underlying factors related to readiness challenges contributed to a series of incidents at sea in Asia this year that has likely led to more U.S. military casualties in the peacetime western Pacific than in Afghanistan. He said Navy leaders have warned for years the service is nearing its readiness "breaking point," stemming from a shrunken fleet size, budget cuts, and eight years of continuing resolutions at a time of increased demand.

For the past two decades, the United States has deployed 100 ships continuously at sea despite a smaller fleet. As a result, the Navy has been forced to deploy ships more frequently and for longer periods of time.

In 1998, only 4 percent of ship deployments lasted longer than six months. Today, every single deployment is longer than six months. Callender said this has caused the Navy to defer maintenance for many of its ships, in turn reducing much-needed training hours.

Callender said Naval leadership also needs to reassess its training regimen in a manner that focuses more on the human element. He said younger sailors and officers are now too reliant on technology to navigate the sea.

"We've lost in the Navy the ability to train our sailors and crew to use manual backup methods when technology fails," he said. "It's not just training how to fight—that's a key piece we need to be able to do—but it's making sure we're taking the time to go back to the basics to ensure our sailors and our pilots can operate without relying on the technology, because what happens if the technology fails?"

Citing media reports the USS McCain may have wrecked after a cyber attack on its GPS systems, Callender said such an assault wouldn't have mattered if the Navy had properly trained its crews.

The Navy on Tuesday ordered a rare operational pause for ships around the world to conduct a safety check. Two days later, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin was removed as commander of the Seventh Fleet in connection to four collisions in the western Pacific this year, of which two were fatal.

In an incident similar to the USS McCain collision, seven U.S. sailors were killed in June after the USS Fitzgerald bashed into a container ship off the cost of Japan. A month earlier, guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing vessel off the Korean Peninsula, and in January, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the U.S. Seventh Fleet is based.

The House Armed Services Committee announced Wednesday it will hold a hearing to review the naval collisions on Sept. 7 after the Labor Day holiday.