Military and Police

Navy Commanders Facing Criminal Charges in Recent Collisions

The responsibility for the safety of the crew and execution of the military mission rests with the Commanding Officer. When incidents affecting either occur, the Commanding Officer is held responsible.

The Navy announced that charges will be brought against individuals involved in two recent ship collisions.

Two significant collisions resulting in loss of life occurred last year. In June 2017, the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) collided with Motor Vessel ACX Crystal, resulting in the loss of seven Fitzgerald sailors. Just a few months later, in August 2017, the USS John S McCain (DDG 56) collided with Motor Vessel Alnic MC. The collision resulted in the loss of ten sailors.

What caused the collisions?

The Navy investigated the incidents thoroughly, finding that both collisions were avoidable and occurred due to a variety of factors.

Both ships were operating in areas of heavy maritime traffic in the Seventh Fleet area of operations. The Fitzgerald was transiting in a maritime Traffic Separation Scheme, which serves a similar function to a highway. Ships are required to stay in their designated lane to help with safe passage near ports. The McCain was approaching Changi Naval Base, Singapore and collided with the Alnic in the Straits of Singapore.

The Navy found that a lack of knowledge and training resulted in an unprepared crew. In the case of the McCain, a lack of knowledge of ship equipment operating procedures caused the crew to be unaware of how the ship was operating. Ultimately, these factors led to unsafe situations and loss of life.

Following the release of the investigation’s findings, the Chief of Naval Operations ordered a review of operating procedures across the Navy’s surface force. A review was conducted of incidents going back ten years. The Navy determined that increased demand and operational tempo, particularly in the Seventh Fleet, has been a factor in creating situations where these incident are more likely to occur.

Who is responsible?

In a statement, the Navy shared the actions being taken to hold those responsible for the collisions accountable.

Admiral Frank Caldwell was designated as the Consolidated Disposition Authority by the Navy’s senior leadership to “review the accountability actions taken to date in relation to USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collisions and to take additional administrative or disciplinary actions as appropriate.”

Admiral Caldwell reviewed the incidents and determined that Courts-martial proceedings would be convened for four officers from the Fitzgerald and one from the McCain.

From the Fitzgerald, the Commanding Officer, two Lieutenants, and one Lieutenant Junior Grade will be charged. Charges will include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide.

Charges will be brought against one officer from the McCain, the Commanding Officer. The charges will include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide. A Chief Petty Officer may also face the same charges, pending referral.

Four crewmembers from the Fitzgerald and four crewmembers from the McCain are also facing administrative actions for their role in the incidents.

In both cases, the Commanding Officer is the most senior member to be charged. The responsibility for the safety of the crew and execution of the military mission rests with the Commanding Officer. When incidents affecting either occur, the Commanding Officer is held responsible.

At the time of the collision, the Fitzgerald’s Commanding Officer was in his cabin onboard and not at any control station. He was injured in the collision and unable to leave his cabin.

Yet, he is still held responsible for the actions of his crew. “In the Navy, the responsibility of the Commanding Officer for his or her ship is absolute,” the Navy’s report on its investigation stated.

Admiral Caldwell reviewed the incidents and determined that Courts-martial proceedings would be convened for four officers from the Fitzgerald and one from the McCain.

What is a Courts-martial?

A Courts-martial, or Article 32 hearing, is the military’s version of a criminal trial. While members of the military are required to follow civilian laws, just like their civilian counterparts, they are also held to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The UCMJ is a set of laws that govern the conduct of military members. The UCMJ includes crimes such as murder, drug use, drunk driving, and others that have counterparts in the civilian justice system. It also includes military-specific laws, such as dereliction of duty, failure to obey orders, and conduct unbecoming an officer.

According the the Manual for Courts-martial, “the purpose of military law is to promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the national security of the United States.”

Military laws establish additional expectations placed on military members that are necessary to the effective operation of the service.

Much like in a civilian trial, all accused parties are presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

“The announcement of an Article 32 hearing and referral to a court-martial is not intended to and does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence related to any offenses,” the Navy’s statement said. “All individuals alleged to have committed misconduct are entitled to a presumption of innocence.”

According the the Manual for Courts-martial, “the purpose of military law is to promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the national security of the United States.”

The statement did not indicate when the Courts-martials will take place, but they can be expected to occur within the next few months. The Manual for Courts-martial requires that “the accused shall be brought to trial within 120 days after the earlier of (1) preferral of charges or (2) the imposition of restraint.”

The Navy will release additional information if appropriate. The Navy is expected to release the findings of the Courts-martials when they are concluded.

Just days after the announcement of the charges, the USS Fitzgerald arrived in Pascagoula, Mississippi for repair. During the repair period, the ship will also receive upgrades and new systems. The work is scheduled to be completed in mid-2019, after which the ship will undergo testing to ensure it is fully operational.

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Katie Begley

Katie Begley is a US Naval Academy graduate and former Surface Warfare Officer. In addition to being a military spouse, she is a freelance writer specializing in travel, education, and parenting subjects. Katie has worked in numerous communications roles for volunteer organizations and professionally for a local parenting magazine.

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