And now our Full Measure investigation into the state of the U.S. Navy, which is seen as the best and most powerful sea force in the world. But back-to-back tragedies in 2017 provided a disturbing window into some critical weaknesses you might not have heard about. As global developments promise to further challenge the Navy, we look at a sea change some say is needed to ensure our national security.
(This story begins with the USS Fitzgerald at sea, guns in training exercise)
This is the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald in a training exercise just a few years before an epic tragedy stuck.
On June 17, 2017, in the middle of the night off the coast of Japan, multiple crew members on duty aboard the USS Fitzgerald made series of errors that led to a collision with a foreign cargo ship.
Bryce Benson was the U.S. ship’s commander.
He’s speaking on camera for the first time.
Bryce Benson: I was sleeping and a 30,000-ton tanker came bursting through my cabin, inches from crushing me, but piling a wave of debris on top of me. So that's how I woke and realized that we were in a collision.
It was the deadliest Naval accident at sea in four decades.
Sharyl: Was there water coming in? Was this ship at risk of sinking?
Sharyl: And what happened?
Benson: Well, first of all, my crew saved the ship. It is unfortunate that we did lose seven of the bravest men that I've ever served with.
Benson blames poor communication among the crew. But just as important, he says, his ship was also victim of Navy-wide shortfalls in training, maintenance and manning. At the time, he was down the position of the chief quartermaster in charge of navigation.
Benson: I never had that position filled in the entirety of my tour.
Sharyl: Could that have made a difference the night of the collision?
Benson: Potentially. We trained on the margins, in between operations. We were going down to the South China Sea to conduct operations. I was concerned, as rightly so about those operations. And also I was concerned about my manning and other events on the ship that really pulled my focus away on what should have been the most important thing, safe navigation.
In any event, Benson accepted responsibility for the collision.
Benson: There’s no doubt that there was failure among my team. At a very high level, a three-star admiral held me accountable as the commanding officer for the failures of my team.
He received a reprimand and he was removed from command, which put his military career on the path to an early ending.
But then something happened. A few weeks after the USS Fitzgerald accident, another Navy destroyer, USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker off of Singapore. Ten more sailors died.
The back-to-back collisions, deemed avoidable and the fault of commanders and crew, drew sharp criticism of the Navy and prompted a fleet wide review.
More time passed and Benson was still being treated for his injuries when he got a stunning call. Now seven months after the accident, the Navy was filing criminal charges against him and four other officers on the two ships including negligent homicide. It was the first known case where such charges were leveled against a commanding officer who was asleep during an accident.
Benson: This had never been done before. I was shocked. I was trying to make sense of it. But at that time in my recovery, it was very difficult to try to put perspective on why this was happening.
Benson says he believes he was being scapegoated to distract from the Navy’s fleet wide problems.
A secret internal probe later obtained by Navy Times found that “Some radar controls didn’t work” on USS Fitzgerald before the collision and “crew members didn’t know how to use them anyway.” Broken electronic navigational equipment had been cannibalized for parts “to help keep the rickety system working.”
Janine Davidson was under secretary of the Navy back in 2016, the year before both collisions. She says she was alarmed to learn of readiness issues, including $800 million dollars in ship maintenance that had been put off.
Janine Davidson: We're definitely unlucky because of the operational tempo and the focus on the wars took the focus off of the Navy. But then are we unwise because we're not able to articulate just what that means for the security of the United States.
The troubles date back nearly two decades, according to the Government Accountability Office or GAO. Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq left the Navy overworked and understaffed. Tensions in Asia and Russia have piled on more demands. The GAO found that, just as Commander Benson said, sailors and ships in that region were so busy they didn’t have time to train properly.
Davidson: Sailors may not have been as trained as they could have been, the ships were definitely not as maintained as they were. Everybody was focused on getting the mission done.
For its part, the Navy says it’s made great strides since the double disasters, implementing dozens of fixes.
Commander Ted Pledger invited us aboard USS Cole in Norfolk, Virginia, a ship best remembered for a terrorist attack that prompted an earlier sea change to try to improve Navy procedures and systems.
Com. Ted Pledger: On USS Cole almost 20 years ago, we were attacked by a terrorist in Yemen while refueling and sustained significant damage. Seventeen sailors died and this ship has seen combat. So that's what we have to be ready for at the end of the day when we go overseas and we do the nation's business.
The two ship accidents in 2017 renewed questions about whether the nation’s sea force is fully prepared.
Sharyl: You've heard criticisms about Navy readiness, what are your answers to that?
Pledger: Right. So as you know, over two years ago, two and a half years ago, we had a couple of very significant incidents where sailors did die and a lot of changes have been made since then. And I can say coming out of our maintenance phase, I've seen the results in a lot of those changes.
On the day of our visit, sailors were training for a fire emergency on USS Cole.
Pledger says the Navy has boosted certification, training and equipment.
There’s a new deck course for junior officers like the ones who guided the USS Fitzgerald when it crashed.
And improvements in the Combat Information Center.
You mentioned, Fitzgerald, there were communication issues between the folks in combat [center] and the folks in the bridge. So now, we're integrated in our training and our approach. I think it's really good to have that. Very helpful
Sharyl: For people who say that after those incidents, the Navy did not want to accept the fact that there were readiness issues, you seem to be saying that's not the case.
Pledger: Well, I think, getting underway and taking ships to sea and preparing for combat operations, it's an inherently dangerous business and there are always going to be challenges associated with that. But what we've done, is that we took an organization that was the best in the world and we just made it even better based on some of the lessons that we've learned.
The GAO says even with all of the focus, Navy readiness, measure by staffing, training and working equipment, declined overall from 2017 to 2018.
GAO says improvements and investments in training will help but take many years.
Manning and maintenance are still issues.
Many shipyards are old and in poor condition, and need over $20 billion in modernization.
And the Navy projects it cannot support 1/3 of needed maintenance over the next 20 years.
As the Navy fought to bounce back from the 2017 fiascoes, Benson successfully fought the criminal charges. The military dismissed them. But the Navy wasn’t through with him. The next day, he was hit with a censure and months of additional administrative red tape to determine his retirement rank. He won that battle too, and last December, retired due to medical reasons, at his full rank.
Benson: There is no winner in this outcome. At the end I don't feel that the problems were addressed, and there are seven of the bravest men who lost their lives. Seven sets of parents who lost the brightest stars in their universe. I think it's important for the commanders to understand, to for the public to recognize, those were the circumstances in which we were operating in 2017 and to remember that and not to allow it to happen again.
The Navy has gotten $25 billion more tax money than it planned for since 2007, but is still 46 ships behind its goal.