Negligent homicide charges dropped against USS Fitzgerald captain

Damages on the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald at a port in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo on June 18, 2017. Credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

On 11 April the US Navy dropped a charge of negligent homicide and other offences against Commander Bryce Benson, captain of the USS Fitzgerald on 17 June 2017 when it collided with the commercial vessel, ACX Crystal, in the waters off Japan’s coast about 80 n miles southwest of Tokyo. Seven US Navy sailors were killed that night.

Charges were also dropped against Lieutenant Natalie Combs, the officer in charge of the Command Information Centre and responsible for advising the bridge on collision avoidance.  Both Cmdr. Benson and Lt. Combs received letters of censure, with the common feature that their ineffective leadership and poor judgement or communication were causal factors in the collision. Letters of censure acknowledge acts of wrongdoing but have no legal ramifications.

Two months after the Fitzgerald crash another US Navy destroyer, the USS John S McCain, collided with a merchant vessel near the Singapore Straits, killing 10 sailors. Since then, US Navy investigations have revealed a pattern of underlying problems.

Poor local leadership or wider fatigue?

It takes a seismic event to make significant changes to any organisation.  The Fitzgerald collision was bad enough but it appeared that it was the second fatal collision that really made senior officers in the US Navy look carefully at their procedures.

American military newspaper Stars and Stripes helped stir up the debate. Although based in the US Department of Defense the paper is editorially independent and revealed institutional failings that saw the blame shift far beyond that of two ‘negligent’ captains.

In July 2018 it reported that the Japan-based 7th Fleet, which included both destroyers, was undermanned, with sailors working 100-hour weeks and cutting corners on training and repairs just to keep pace with their tasking.  It quoted a Strategic Readiness Review commissioned by the US Navy that showed that these problems were Navy-wide and had created a culture of circumventing or relaxing “processes and procedures designed for safe and effective operations”.

The 7th Fleet operates the largest of the US Navy’s numbered fleets; at any given time, it has up to 80 ships and submarines, 140 aircraft and approximately 40,000 sailors and marines in the region.  It maintains a continuous presence in the Indo-Asia Pacific region and is the ‘first responder’ when it comes to countering any perceived Chinese aggression.

Vice-Admiral Joseph Aucoin, the 7th Fleet Commander at the time of the incidents, but relieved of command after the McCain collision, wrote in Stars and Stripes of his fleet often being tasked with missions at short notice.  Even when his fleet would respond to say that it would not recommend the mission – along with the cost to training and readiness – it would often be ordered to execute it regardless.

Two 2017 reports into the incidents commissioned by the US Navy recommended 117 changes, later trimmed to 103, to the way in which it operates.  Of these, 91 have been put into place according to the 25 February 2019 memorandum to Congress by Admiral William Moran, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.  The changes were intended to address years of underfunded operations, an increased pace of operations and an erosion of safety standards, according to the reports.  They included increased manning, better crew sleep schedules, improved training, and all to be verified through ready-for-sea assessments.

It appears that the US Navy has decided to use the incident to look into and resolve its internal failings, rather than wholly place blame on the captains. In a statement from the US Navy that announced the decision to drop the charges of negligent homicide, it said, “This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald Sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers.  Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment.

“The comprehensive program to improve Navy readiness and training, to do everything possible to ensure that accidents like this will not recur, remains on track.”