On June 17th, the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer with the United States Navy, collided with a merchant vessel southwest of Tokyo, Japan. The collision resulted in the death of seven Navy sailors and an additional three crewmembers were injured.
Then, on August 21st, the USS John S. McCain, also a Navy destroyer, collided with a merchant vessel in the Straits of Malacca, near Singapore. This time, ten crewmembers were killed and five others injured.
The death of a single U.S. service member is one death too many, but losing seventeen Navy sailors in the course of a few months is a real tragedy.
The House Armed Services Committee recently convened a hearing to examine these incidents. As a member of the Committee, I was especially interested in what needed to change to prevent events like this from occurring in the future.
In addition to the two tragic incidents, there were also recent incidents where the USS Antietam ran aground near Japan and the USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing boat. Neither of these resulted in any injuries, but they did cause damage to the ships.
Already, the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, where all these incidents occurred, has been relieved of his command and the commanding officers of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS Antietam were also removed.
During the hearing, we heard a number of different ideas and concerns from the Navy leadership who testified. Notably, the Navy made clear that investigations into these incidents are still ongoing, but I think a number of conclusions can be drawn.
First, we must continue to evaluate and improve our Navy’s training programs. Today’s ships have very complex technology that requires extensive training and retraining to keep the crew up-to-speed.
We also need to make sure we have enough sailors to prevent exhaustion and fatigue from adding unnecessary risk. Studies indicate that today’s sailors are working longer hours than their predecessors. Our ships require full manning to perform their missions throughout the globe.
The size of the fleet is also an issue. More ships mean shorter and less frequent deployments per ship, which lessens the wear and tear on the ship and leaves more time for maintenance and training. We have 100 ships throughout the world but with a fleet that has shrunk over 40% since the late 1980s.
All of these areas tie back to a major underlying issue: lack of adequate funding and funding certainty for our national defense. These are both Congressional responsibilities and requirements.
We must give the Navy and the entire military more budget certainty. The Navy needs to know how much money they will be receiving each year in order to effectively plan their programs and procure new ships.
I was pleased when the House passed a strong military funding bill earlier this year. Specific to these concerns, the bill called for bringing on more military personnel and buying eleven more Navy ships.
Unfortunately, the Senate has so far failed to pass the military funding bill. This resulted in Congress last week passing a short-term Continuing Resolution that simply holds funding levels in place. I voted against the short-term Continuing Resolution because of the negative impact it will have on our military. It will delay maintenance periods for ships we need to send back out to the fleet and delay the process of procuring new ships, to name a few crippling effects.
Of course we need the Navy to do a better job of training and operating their vessels, but Congress has to also do our part to ensure adequate funding and budget certainty. We cannot continue to underfund our military and put our sailors and service members at risk.
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Bradley Byrne is a member of U.S. Congress representing Alabama’s 1st Congressional District.