WASHINGTON — The US Navy is reviewing its operations in the Persian Gulf following a series of high-profile crashes on the other side of the globe that have killed more than 20 sailors over the past few months.
While the accidents have all occurred in the Asia-Pacific Theater, the entire US fleet was ordered to take a daylong “operational pause” last month to review basic seamanship and teamwork. Concerns that the Navy is stretched too thin and that crews are skimping on regular training are resonating far and wide.
“It has sent a global message around. Everyone who is in operation of US vessels is looking around and saying, ‘We need to do some more exercises, we need to do some more training,’” Rockford Weitz, the director of the Maritime Studies program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told Al-Monitor. “For the Gulf region, from Kuwait and Basra through the Strait of Hormuz, this will have long-term implications for how the Navy approaches those zones.”
The US 5th Fleet, which includes 5,000 American sailors and is stationed in Manama, Bahrain, used the break in operations to solicit feedback from both officers and sailors. More than a half dozen companies, including Boeing, Maersk and BP North America, will also participate in an ongoing readiness review of US Navy operations worldwide.
Comdr. Bill Urban, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said the pause was spread out across several days for Central Command units in order to limit any impact on Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led effort to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Since that effort kicked off in 2015, the US Navy has launched F/A-18E Super Hornets from aircraft carriers stationed in the Gulf to strike IS fighters.
Even if the Pentagon doesn’t immediately feel the effect of the review, experts say the Asia-Pacific crashes could have lasting impacts on how the fleet operates in the Middle East, where highly trafficked waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz can put an emphasis on better training and additional watches to steer clear of accidents. While the cause of the latest crash, between the destroyer USS John S. McCain and a merchant ship near Singapore last month, has not been determined, the incident raised questions about possible issues with training and human error.
“The emphasis of that is really to take a look at … the fundamentals … at the unit and team level, to make sure that we're not overlooking anything,” US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters at the Pentagon last month as he announced the pause.
The crash of the McCain and the destroyer USS Fitzgerald two months earlier led the Navy to relieve Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin of command of the US 7th Fleet, headquartered in Japan. The Navy declined to comment on whether the operational pause could lead to the firing or relief of any officers in the Persian Gulf.
Both collisions occurred before sunrise, a time when experts say that low-visibility conditions can make spotting other vessels challenging.
“In these very dense trafficked areas where you have naval vessels intermingling, it’s the same reason you have car accidents,” Weitz said. “Out on country roads, it’s not frequent, but downtown, it happens all the time.”
Heightening risk management has taken a front seat in the first several months of the Donald Trump administration, as Iranian military incursions against US ships have surged.
Last month, an Iranian QOM-1 drone repeatedly buzzed the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf despite several attempts by American troops to establish communications. That marked the 14th interaction between the US and Iranian navies that Central Command has deemed “unsafe” so far in 2017.
It’s unclear if the pause will have any impact on US military efforts to maintain freedom of navigation in the Middle East. The US Defense Department says Tehran claims parts of maritime space in the Persian Gulf in violation of international law by restricting the rights of transit through the Strait of Hormuz. Adding to the uncertainty, clashes between Bahrain’s Sunni rulers and the country’s marginalized Shiite majority have sparked recurring congressional calls to consider relocating the fleet.
Concerns that the US Navy is stretched too thin have pushed the Trump administration to promise to expand the fleet by more than 25%, to 350 ships. The United States currently has 277 ships, the smallest American fleet since 1916, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said Sept. 6.
Spencer indicated the 350-ship goal could be achievable if the Pentagon makes the move to develop more small surface ships, extend the lifespan of the current American destroyer fleet and reactivate old ships such as Oliver Hazard Perry frigates. But for the time being, the operational review will force the US Navy to keep a closer eye on shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.