Why do peacetime naval accidents keep happening?
2017 was an especially bad year for fatal naval accidents. Then last week the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad collided with an oil tanker and is was run onto rocks in a vain attempt to prevent her sinking. There have always been serious accidents involving warships and submarines during peacetime operations but with the advent of modern navigation technologies, there is some surprise that these incidents keep happening. Here we look briefly at the circumstances of some of the accidents and what might be learned from them.
Agonies for the US Navy
The US Pacific Fleet has had a particularly difficult time recently with a spate of incidents. In February 2009 cruiser USS Port Royal grounded on a reef off Oahu, Hawaii and was stuck for some. The ships was badly damaged and the environmental damage to a coral reef was especially embarrassing. Equipment from the ship was unloaded and she was eventually floated off. The enquiry found the accident was caused by a combination of a misread navigation system, a sleep-deprived commanding officer, broken equipment, and an inexperienced and dysfunctional bridge team
A wooden hulled minehunter USS Guardian ran onto a coral reef in the Sulu Sea near the Philippines in January 2013. Wave action pushed her further onto the reef, she was declared a total loss and was broken up into sections for disposal. At the time of the accident, she was using charts that were out of date and did not show the correct position of the reef.
The first warning that there were really systemic problems in the US Pacific Fleet came in May 2017. Cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing vessel Nam Yang 502 in broad daylight in the Sea of Japan. The cruiser was not using AIS and the navigation radar display on bridge was malfunctioning. Her bridge watch team was found to have been slow to react and made the wrong calls in attempting to avoid a collision.
The destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with container ship MV ACX Crystal off Japan in the early hours of 17 June 2017. The ship was badly holed, killing 7 sailors, although good weather and her solid warship construction meant she was not at risk of floundering. The enquiry found a failure to adhere to sound navigation practice, use available navigation tools and respond correctly to impending danger.
Just five weeks after the Fitzgerald disaster, the USS John S. McCain had 10 sailors killed when she was in collision with oil tanker Alnic MC off the coast of Singapore at around 0530 on 21st August. Her repairs were slightly more straightforward than the Fitzgerald, costing $233 million and conducted in Japan. The enquiry identified seamanship, navigation and leadership failures on the McCain but the spate of accidents has highlighted a fleet-wide problem that went right to senior levels. The pressure to deploy was such that ships were not being given enough time to devote to basic training, crews were over-worked, under strain and not well prepared for all situations. Ships can be fixed but the avoidable deaths of 17 sailors was a tragic way to learn lessons. The US Navy is now instituting major changes to try to address the underlying causes. The merchant ships involved did not appear to have been culpable and the more nimble warships are usually expected to give way to larger vessels.
2017 was marred by a further disaster when the Argentine submarine, ARA San Juan disappeared with the loss of her 44 crew. Despite considerable international efforts, her wreck has not yet been located. Conclusive evidence has not been found, but a battery explosion appears to have been the likely cause of the accident.
The loss of the KNM Helge Ingstad
At around 0426 on 8 November, the Norwegian AEGIS frigate collided with the 62,000 ton oil Tanker MV Sola in Hjeltefjorden. The oil tanker was undamaged but the frigate had a large hole torn down her starboard quarter. She suffered a loss of propulsion and was in imminent danger of sinking. Miraculously only 7 sailors suffered minor injuries, power supplies on board were maintained and the entire crew was safely evacuated. The KNM Helge Ingstat completed several weeks of Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) with the Royal Navy in February 2018. This training is more focused on warfare than basic navigation skills but the quick response by the crew to a sudden crisis instilled by FOST may have helped saved lives.
Tugs from the nearby oil terminals were quickly on the scene and the Captian made the tough call to request they run her onto the nearest shoreline in an attempt to prevent her sinking. Unfortunately, the Norwegian Fjords mostly consist of steep rocky shores, far from ideal for grounding a ship. Tugs battled to keep the unstable ship upright against the shore but she gradually listed to starboard. Attempts were made to secure the ship to the shore with steel cables to prevent it sliding into deeper water. this proved unsuccessful and by 12th November she had sunk deeper and was almost entirely submerged.
Salvage company BOA Offshore has been contracted to investigate raising the wreck. Although the Ingstad is probably now beyond economical repair, she has munitions and classified equipment onboard and would present an environmental hazard if abandoned. Even if the steel work of the hull could be repaired, the machinery and complex electronics of a ship that originally cost around £400 million would have to be almost entirely replaced after being submerged in seawater. Winter storms are likely to damage the wreck or possibly cause her to sink deeper so there is some urgency. The 15-month salvage of the 114,000-tonne cruise liner Costa Concordia took 15 months but demonstrated with time, money and determination, it is possible to salvage pretty much any vessel sunk in shallow waters.
The cause of the accident is unknown and it will take some time before the results of the investigation are public. In Norway there is consternation as to how such an accident could happen in this area. There is a 24-hour marine traffic centre with radar coverage of the area and the ship was in waters she knew well, heading for the Haakonsvern Naval Base. Unconfirmed media reports say the frigate was warned she was on a collision course on VHF radio by both the tanker and the traffic control centre which she acknowledged, just minutes before the collision. Other reports say the frigate was doing a very brisk 17 knots at the time of the collision and her navigator has somehow misread the ship’s position, mentioning navigation marks some way from their actual location. Either way, something went very badly wrong on the bridge of the frigate with every indication of serious human error.
The Norwegian Navy has suffered write-offs before, the Helge Ingstad was the fourth of five of the replacements for the five Oslo class frigates. In January 1994 the lead ship KNM Oslo had a boiler feed pump failure and drifted in heavy seas off Bergen before running aground. She sank under tow and was eventually raised and scrapped. Minehunter KNM Orkla was destroyed by fire at sea in November 2002.
Tough days for the Royal Navy
The RN has also suffered significant incidents in the 21st Century. HMS Nottingham hit rocks off Australia on July 7 2002. This was caused by accumulated navigational and situational awareness error by the bridge team. The subsequent damage control response and leadership was excellent and saved the ship. Having been recently refitted and upgraded, Nottingham was considered too valuable to write off. The ship was returned to the UK by barge, repairs took two years and cost £39m.
HMS Grafton ran aground in Sept 2000, just south of Oslo but was hauled off by tugs and was able to sail home under her own steam. Norwegian waters also proved treacherous for HMS Campbeltown which damaged her propellors, costing £300,000 to repair when she hit sandbank off Tromoso in 2001, due to navigational errors.
The most recent serious incident suffered by the surface fleet was the near loss of HMS Endurance off the coast of Chile in December 2008. An incorrect maintenance procedure resulted in a hull valve being opened causing a severe flood and loss of propulsion. Extremely fortunate she was not in the Antarctic or far from help at the time, she was able to quickly anchor in shallow waters and receive assistance from the Chilean navy.
The Royal Navy has been fortunate not to suffer any major accidents with its surface fleet for some time now but the submarine service has not been quite so lucky. There was one very near miss in autumn of 2016 when a surfaced RN submarine came within feet of ramming a Type 23 frigate at night in Scottish waters.
In November 2002, while conducting Perisher training, HMS Trafalgar, travelling at 50m depth at speed of 14 knots hit rocks off the Isle of Skye. Three sailors were injured and repair cost £5 Million. Charts in the control room had been obscured leading to the accident.
HMS Superb ran into rocks around 80 miles south of Suez in May 2008. Her bow and sonar were badly damaged and she was forced to surface, limped home and was eventually scrapped. The CO was found guilty of not supervising the navigational plot adequately.
At sea on deterrent patrol somewhere submerged deep in the Eastern Atlantic during February 2009, HMS Vanguard collided with her French equivalent Le Triomphant. According to the official account, both boats were moving silently at low speed and reliant on passive sonar so failed to detect each other. Fortunately, both boat’s pressure hulls remained intact and they returned home for repair. The probability of such a collision occurring seems so low as to be hard to believe. It would appear to be a random accident with no one to blame, although there may now be greater patrol area deconfliction coordination with the French and US Navies.
HMS Astute ran aground off the Isle of Skye on 22 October 2010 while on sea trials. She was stranded until high tide with her rudder embedded in the seabed. The tug sent to assist later managed to ram one of the foreplanes of the otherwise undamaged boat. The causes of the grounding were lack of planning, navigation failures and procedures for a new class of boat still being developed.
In July 2016 HMS Ambush collided with a merchant ship while conducting daylight perisher exercises off Gibraltar. She suffered what appeared to be relatively minor damage to her conning tower but it cost £2.1million to repair and Ambush was out of commission for almost a year. A brief loss of situational awareness caused by fatigue and procedures with new optronic periscopes were contributing factors in the accident.
All navies experience accidents
Every incident is embarrassing for the Navy concerned and is quickly pounced on by critics as evidence of institutional decline and widespread incompetence. Most of the accidents are the result of human error but seafaring has always been a demanding and sometimes dangerous profession where even small mistakes may have serious consequences. While these events make headlines, the achievement of years of conducting safe, sustained, and sometimes extremely complex operations covering thousands of miles are overlooked. A reputation built up over years can be damaged in minutes.
It is clear that even the best trained and equipped ‘tier-1’ navies have accidents. It is a statistical certainty there have been other accidents or very near misses that are unreported or covered up. This is especially likely to be the case for the navies of nations under control of repressive regimes, which may give the false impression Western navies are more accident prone. Both the US and Royal Navy offer a measure of transparency by publishing detailed Board of Enquiry reports after the events. Vessels belonging to top-tier navies also tend to spend far greater proportion of their time at sea, increasing their chances of accidents. It would be surprising if the Chinese Navy which is expanding very rapidly has not had experienced accidents that have not been made public. The Soviet/Russian Navy also has a long and spectacular record of disasters both in port and at sea, many of which are now in the public domain.
There has been increasing speculation that cyber attacks on navigational equipment or GPS spoofing could be behind some of the more recent accidents. So far none of the official enquires has found this to be the case, or even hinted at it. Warships were making navigational mistakes long before the technology for cyber attack existed. Although it is a theoretical possibility, to conduct such an attack on a naval vessel would be challenging as navies are increasingly vigilant about cyber defence and have multiple back up systems. The technology on board merchant ships probably present more vulnerable targets.
Some observations that might be drawn from the incidents described above include:
- No matter how good your sensors and navigation equipment, you cannot mitigate entirely against human error. The majority of accidents examined here were navigational mistakes made by the bridge team. Training and more training is the antidote.
- Most accidents are caused by an accumulation of small errors made by several people over a period of time. The junior officer on the bridge who makes the fatal mistake may just be the last link in a chain of failures that goes right to senior levels in the navy or government.
- Reactions to the crisis by the crews was usually good. In most cases, there was no panic and naval training paid off. Prompt damage control measures can often prevent the complete loss of the ship or further loss of life.
- The accidents happened more frequently at night. Further evidence that the Mk 1 human eyeball is still the most reliable sensor and navigating at night in confined waters or in the presence of other vessels is the most hazardous scenario.
- Naval vessels routinely have to conduct manoeuvres that entail some risk. This may involve concealing one’s presence by dousing lights, turning off AIS and restricting electronic emissions. There is an inherent tension between safety-first peacetime procedures and realistic training to maintain an operational mindset and posture.
- In the world of aviation, there is a healthy culture of admitting mistakes and disseminating the details of accidents or near-accidents in a manner that allows everyone to learn the lessons and make changes. Although in a naval and military context there must be limitations on transparency, can the maritime world take lessons from aviation in developing safety?
- There is no such thing as putting to sea without any risk. The continual challenges of the maritime environment ensure there will be other accidents and sod’s law cannot be avoided entirely. This works against navies that have a small number of expensive high-end vessels, one mishap can have a very significant impact on the availability percentage of your fleet.
- An unsafe vessel is a liability whatever the circumstances. Absolute competence in the basics of seamanship and navigation is the baseline that must be attained by all navies before any operational effect can be delivered.